Tag Archives: writer’s tips

Collecting People

By Liesa Malik

How many books have you read recently on building characters? Not building character—as in developing your own moral compass—but building characters that you can write about in your next novel? A quick search on Amazon recently pulled up over 100,000 titles when I searched for “books, characters in fiction.” Whew!

As commercial fiction writers we know that good characters are some of the most important ingredients to any story. Where would we be if Scrooge weren’t such a delightfully well-rounded reluctant hero?

We’ve often been instructed on how to build characters, but today I want to talk about collecting them through real life adventures. Characters are in the people all around us. If we learn to use our powers of observation, and note people continuously, our stories will have a real boost up when seeking publication.

Here are some ideas for your “collecting” process:

  • Have a place to keep your collection. This could be a spiral notebook, a file on your computer, or a binder with tabs for collecting and sorting your observations. Thing is, try to keep this collection in one place. Mobility simply gives you opportunity for losing precious work (I still have a poetry book out in Atlanta, Georgia somewhere. Grr!)
  • When you’re in a restaurant, look around. Find the most interesting or the most boring, cutest or ugliest person in the room and jot down a quick biography of him or her. So what that you don’t know them? You’re working on fiction. Pretend you’re Sherlock Holmes and note things like the way they use their flatware, whether they’re glued to their phone or are looking about, how they sit, how they chew, how they interact with the room around them. Give them a name that truly suits them. Bingo! You’ve just “collected” your first person. Here’s an extra tip. If you go to a bagel or coffee shop each morning, as I do, you’ll see the same people over and over. In the course of a week, you could build quite a lot of notes and history about your character. Pop them into your collection file. When you need that character, he or she will be ready to polish and run with.
  • Make a list of lists. Sitting around for fifteen minutes? You could play a game of Sudoku, or you could make a list of lists. Pull out your trusty notebook and jot down lists of people to remember. Start with the phrase “My favorite ___ is . . .” The favorites is a list of occupations or roles of people in your life: teachers, neighbors, relatives, movie stars and so on. At a later time you can choose one of these favorite roles and list actual people, or choose one favorite person and write about them.
  • Drive around and snap a photo of a house you’ve never been in. Okay. Got this idea from the July/August issue of Writer’s Digest, but I just love it. They didn’t say to take a photo, but what the heck? Live dangerously. You could only be accused of stalking, prowling, or “casing the joint.” Once you have the photo or a clear image of the house, write down the story behind it and the people who live there. Bonus! You’re learning to describe setting as well as build characters.
  • Be a busy body. Whenever I go to get a haircut or chat with someone on my street, inevitably people tell me stories from their lives about relatives I’ll never meet, or bosses who only get worse with each retelling. When I get home I try to jot down at least part of my friends’ story. It’s good for building a character. One word of caution. When it comes time to retell any true tale, try to change something significant about the person gossiped over. I mark these notes with a phrase like “true recollection” and the name of who told me this, so that I know how much needs to be changed around.

This is such a fun topic that I could brainstorm all day with you. Bet you have some great ideas too. Why not comment here and let everyone know your best character-collecting tip?

Or join me this Saturday at the Lakewood Art Council’s Art Gallery, 85 S. Union Street (behind the Wendy’s) from 1:00 to 2:30. I’ll be talking about repurposing books into arts and crafts and signing my book, Faith on the Rocks. Bet the place will be full of characters.

The Perils of Writing Tribute Characters

Going Under CoverBy Jeffe Kennedy

My new novel-length erotic romance, Going Under, comes out on Monday, so I’ve been doing a lot of interviews and so forth, getting ready for that promo push. One question I get a lot is whether I’ve based my characters on anyone real, or who I know.

I try to give this a thoughtful answer, because I understand that readers are really interested in this idea. Characters feel real to us, so we always wonder, on some level, if they somehow are real. So I don’t give them my immediate, heartfelt answer.

NO.

Never.

No way.

Not that I feel strongly about this or anything…

Okay, I do. I feel strongly about anything that gets in the way of the story. In my mind, the story should always reign supreme. All decisions should be about whether or not [X] makes the story better. While I suppose it’s possible to base a character on a real person and still make decisions based on the betterment of the story, I think this is akin to getting back together with an old lover and kidding yourself that what happened to break you up before doesn’t matter.

It’s not really about what you’re thinking now, but about all that emotion underneath, driving you when you’re not really aware of it.

See, truly basing a character on a real person is nearly always driven by the desire to somehow memorialize that person, or otherwise work out persistent emotions tied to them. Usually intense ones. I’ve had several author friends who’ve wanted to do this – usually for someone close to them who died – and it just never works out well. The need to “serve” that person bogs down every other choice. Decisions are no longer about what’s best for the story, but about that person.

Worse, it just never works out. Because, really, it’s impossible to fully memorialize a complex human being by turning them into a character. No matter our characterization skills, no matter the nobility of the motivation, a character in a book can never be as fully realized as an actual human being. We’ll always fall short in some way.

Then both the effort and the story have suffered.

For me, characters come together more like Method actors do it – by drawing on fragments of my own experiences. In this way, we can access pieces of people we know, pulling in those traits, thoughts, experiences or moments that we hold precious. But then the character becomes someone new, someone who is no longer that tribute character we tried to resurrect in fiction.

Better that they rest in peace.

How Amazon Turned Me into a Serial Killer

Prior to September of 2012, my life was perfect. I had friends, my books were selling, and all was well. Then Amazon went and ruined my life. Forever.

And no, I am not being melodramatic.

Okay, I am, but just a little.

For those who have an Author Central page on Amazon, you know exactly what I’m talking about. For those who don’t, let me give you a little insight into the madness. An Author Central page is a page dedicated just to you, to your books, to your social media, to your profile and customer reviews. It’s a great one stop for all you. A writer/megalomaniac’s dream.

Except for one small thing.

It’s nothing really.

Just a ranking of you versus all the other authors on amazon.

Considering there are over 8 million books on amazon (probably a few million more since I typed that) you can see how you stack up against the population of Colorado and Nevada combined. Good times. Good times.

Now you’re probably asking how an author ranking made me into a serial killer. Well, it wasn’t hard. I was halfway there already. Amazon just added fuel to my fire, along with a target. 15,413 of them as of right now. Updated hourly. Makes it much easier when I don’t have to troll for victims…

You better watch it number 15,412. I’m headed your way.

No really. I have no designs on murdering at least 15,000 authors.

Not anytime soon. You can drop the restraining order Christopher Moore. I promise *wink*

So why in Amazon’s infinite wisdom did they start ranking authors, and more to the point, provided the same authors with said rankings? What can they and you possibly gain?

I wish I had a good answer.

The only foreseeable advantage I see, other than making us nuts (which while fun, probably doesn’t help amazon’s bottom dollar), is to grow more home-grown kindle authors and to have more people buy into Author Central, thereby, in the end, making for lower ebook prices (which equals more units sold) and no traditional publisher middle man.

While it can be easy as an author to get caught up in your author rank, because, let’s face it, we don’t get a lot of ego boosts otherwise. Most days are filled with mediocre reviews and rejection, often from my cat. He really hates when I serve him chicken and salmon cat food. You should check out his yelp reviews, they are downright catty.

But I digress; my point is the ranking system is a trap.

If you looked at my overall author ranking since it was born in 2012, you might think, hey, she must be doing all right if she’s ranked below 20,000 (as an author, the sanity question is still out). But you’d be wrong. While I make some money on book sales, I don’t even make enough to hit the poverty line from my amazon sales. That means, chances are, rank 15,415, 15,416, 15,417 and on and on probably aren’t either.

Now I’m not suggesting you don’t sign up for Author Central. They have a lot of good, helpful tools too for all authors. But remember, there is always an author ranked one number higher looking to bump you off.

And amazon offers plenty of shovels for sale.

Any other thoughts on author rank? Or better yet, anyone know where 15.232 lives?

*All kidding aside, I take any amazon ranking with a grain of salt. For one thing, we have no idea what sort of algorithm they’re using to rank authors. Does the number of books, the sales numbers, and how cute you look in a bathing suit matter? And what’s in a number anyway? Writers are bad at math. We’re lucky if we can add 2 +2, which is why publishers make royalty statements so hard to read.

** This is a follow up post to Amazon Ranking: From Loser to Bestseller and Back Again which I wrote on March 25.

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J.A. (Julie) Kazimer lives in Denver, CO. Novels include CURSES! A F***ed-Up Fairy Tale, Holy Socks & Dirtier Demons, Dope Sick: A Love Story, FROGGY STYLE and The Assassin’s Heart, as well as the forthcoming mystery series, Deadly Ever After from Kensington Books. J.A. spent years spilling drinks as a bartender and then stalked people while working as a private investigator.

Learn more at www.jakazimer.com or on her writerly talk blog More Than a Little F***ed Up. She can also be found (way too much of the time) on Twitter as @jakazimer and on Facebook as Julie Kazimer.

The Importance of a Good Beta Reader

by Katriena Knights

If you’ve seriously pursued writing for any amount of time, you know you can’t be trusted to judge your own work. Scenes that seem wonderfully constructed in our heads are completely incomprehensible to other people. Glorious flights of poetic prose are actually pools of verbal quicksand from which no reader will ever safely return. It’s a sad truth, but a truth nonetheless.

This is why we need Beta readers.

A good Beta reader will help you find those holes in your manuscript where your brain fills in the details but a reader gets confused or completely lost. She’ll find continuity errors, wobbles in character development, and help you figure out where you’ve indulged yourself too much and could really stand to cut things down a bit.

A really good Beta reader will call you on the phone and say, “Hey, mostly I liked the story, but there’s this one thing I HATE with the BURNING PASSION of a THOUSAND MILLION SUNS. Change it.”

True story.

Yes, we’re still speaking.

My Beta reader iBloodontheIce-ART-Smallers also my best friend. She doesn’t just read my manuscripts, she also feeds me story ideas. For example, my upcoming novel from Samhain, Blood on the Ice, is entirely and completely her fault. And yes, she betaed it for me. A couple of times.

Early in the writing process, she read through some chapters and said, “Wait. Your game schedule is a complete mess.” And then she sent me a link and said, “Use this.”

The link was the entire Chicago Blackhawks schedule from the 1955-1956 season, when the NHL only had six teams. “Just plug your six vampire teams into this schedule. That way it’ll make more sense.”

I think I banged my head against a wall for fifteen minutes. It worked, though. Using the actual schedule—even though I did tweak it a little—added a background continuity that made the Vampire Hockey League more realistic. And if there’s anything that needs added realism, it’s a hockey league populated entirely by vampires.

When my final draft was ready, she told me we could get together over Instant Message on Memorial Day and go through the manuscript. I figured we’d chat for a little while, I’d make a few notes, and then I’d be off to finish my submission-ready draft.

Eight hours later (you read that right—EIGHT. HOURS. LATER.), I had about 25 pages of notes copied and pasted out of IM into a document. I was also really freaking hungry. Over the next few days, I reordered several scenes, added some exposition, and took out an entire character. (You know how they say to kill your babies? This was an ACTUAL BABY. Her whole subplot got removed. Poor thing. Maybe she’ll fit into the next book.)

That right there is what every writer needs in a good Beta reader.

I’m always grateful that my BFF happens to have a ridiculously good story sense and isn’t afraid to tell me when stuff just plain sucks. It’s the kind of objective eye every writer needs. I can’t tell you how to find your own—all I know is you can’t have mine.

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Katriena Knights wrote her first poem with she was three years old and had to dictate it to her mother under the bathroom door (her timing has never been very good). Now she’s the author of several paranormal and contemporary romances. She grew up in a miniscule town in Illinois, and now lives in a miniscule town in Colorado with her two children and a variety of pets. For more about Katriena, visit her website and blog

WORLD-BUILDING WARREN’S WAY

By Warren Hammond

Why do you read fiction?

You might say compelling characters. Or high-stakes drama. Maybe you love the plot twists you didn’t see coming.

Those are all valid responses, but when taken alone, isn’t each of them inadequate? Don’t you read fiction for all those reasons, plus probably dozens of others that I didn’t list?

So I’ll ask again, why do you read fiction? It’s a simple question that seems to defy a simple, one-sentence response. Yet, I’m about to attempt it.

You read fiction because you want to be transported to a different time, place, and emotional state.

Reading is travel.

Visit any location in the world or any point in history from the comfort of your own sofa. Pass the time on that dull bus ride exploring fantastical worlds that push the limits of imagination. Journey into the mind of a serial killer or the queen of a medieval realm. Tour all of the emotions available to us humans. Love and despair. Joy and terror. Satisfaction and guilt.

Fiction can take you anywhere you want to go. Every last remote corner of human (and non-human) experience is accessible through fiction.

That is why you read.

And why you write.

Accept that premise, and you see why world-building is a required skill if you’re going to write good stories. I don’t care what genre you write, world-building is required. You can’t transport your reader unless you have a fully realized location to take them to.

That said, the amount of world-building you do will very much depend on your genre and the kind of story you want to tell. For example, you’d expect to do lots of world-building for an epic fantasy set in an imaginary but vaguely medieval universe. None of your readers have ever lived in such a world, so you’ll have to spend a hefty percentage of your word count orienting them so they don’t feel lost. Lucky for you, in this case, many of your readers have read other books set in vaguely medieval universes, so you’ll have a broad range of well-known tropes to borrow from. But use too many of those tropes and you’ll be accused of being derivative. The trick is to find a pleasing mix of original elements and tried-and-true tropes accepted in your genre.

Write a novel with a contemporary setting, and you’ll dedicate fewer words to building your world. Your readers will already be familiar with cars and computers and cell phones. Set your novel in a city like New York and your job will be even easier since your readers will certainly be familiar with the city even if they’ve ever been there in person.

But that doesn’t mean you’ll be off the hook entirely. Say you want to write a mystery centering around the murder of a yacht racing captain. Now you’ll have a sizable job ahead of you. Most of your readers won’t be familiar with many of the nautical terms, nor will they have much of a clue of how professional yacht racing works. What are the racing rules? Where do yacht teams get their funding? What is the social structure within that world?

Okay, so now that we’ve established the fact that all stories require world-building to various degrees, I’d like to share my guidelines. Guidelines? But you wanted a step-by-step how-to manual. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist. Writing is a very organic process, and also very personal. What works for one person will likely fail another. The best anybody can do is offer a framework of generalizations, and I hope you’ll take these guidelines as such.

1.       Build a fully-formed world rich with detail. Your world should include all of the following:

Culture – Traditions, clothing, food, language, architecture, manners

History – War, famine, exploration, scientific advancement

Environment – Flora, fauna, weather, geography

Economy – Trade, currency, class structure, resources

Religion – Beliefs, ethics, values, rituals

Unreal* – Futuristic or alien technology, magic, supernatural elements

Politics – Government, military, foreign relations, legal system

This first guideline even comes with a built-in pep talk. Notice the first letters of each line spell CHEER UP!

*Not all genres include elements of the unreal

2.       Use only the relevant details

Now that you’ve built a complex and compelling world, you have to seriously consider which details to include in your story. Include them all, and you’ll slow your plot to a crawl. Instead, you’ll need to choose only those details that have a significant impact on your story and its characters. Don’t bore your readers with minutia they don’t need to know.

3.       Avoid info dumps

Don’t tell us about your world. Put us in your world.

This is fiction, not an encyclopedia. When you introduce a new gadget, show a character using it, and we’ll learn soon enough what it does. When you want to dig into the nitty-gritty of a subject, let your characters discuss the subject in dialog. Or better yet, amp up the tension by turning that discussion into an argument.

Long passages of background information need not apply.

4.       Imbue your world with mood and atmosphere

Don’t forget my original premise, that readers want to be transported to a different time, location, and emotional state. How do you want your reader to feel when they’re in your world? Scared? Awed? Enchanted?

To achieve this goal, show us how your world affects your characters. If the world makes your characters feel scared, it’s likely your reader will feel scared too.

Also be smart with your word choices. Take a simple sentence like this one.

The wind rustles through the leaves.

Replace the word rustles with any of these verbs (whistles, weaves, whips, roars, whispers, barges, snakes), and I think you’ll agree that each one invokes a unique mood.

Create a proper mood, and your world will come alive!

Happy writing!

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Warren grew up in the Hudson River Valley of New York State. Upon obtaining his teaching degree from the University at Albany, he moved to Colorado, and settled in Denver where he can often be found typing away at one of the local coffee shops.

Warren is known for his gritty, futuristic KOP series. By taking the best of classic detective noir, and reinventing it on a destitute colony world, Warren has created these uniquely dark tales of murder, corruption and redemption.

Always eager to see new places, Warren has traveled extensively. Whether it’s wildlife viewing in exotic locales like Botswana and the Galapagos Islands, or trekking in the Himalayas, he’s always up for a new adventure.

The Good, the Bad, and the Very, Very Ugly: All Manuscripts Are Not Created Equal

By J.A. (Julie) Kazimer

Listen closely, for I am about to tell you a publishing secret no one else wants you to know.

Are you ready?

Here goes.

Not everything a writer writes is good.

Shocking, right?  J.K. Rowlings didn’t sit down one day and pound out a thousand pages of Harry Potter the first time her fingers hit the keyboard. Learning craft takes a lifetime. Some writers get lucky and the first manuscript they write is snatched up by an agent and sold to a big house for a huge advance. But they still have to sit back down at the keyboard and write book 2.

Trust me; the second book won’t be nearly as easy to write. Or as pretty.

Manuscripts are a lot like children.  Some are born cute, while others have to grow on you.

*No emails, please. Your offspring are just adorable, I swear.

But there is a beauty in the crap writing too. A freedom. Maybe it’s a freedom from inside the box thinking or story ideas. Sometimes it’s freedom from your own voice, a means to explore beyond what you know. Often, for me, my crap words are the same ones that push me for better ones. After all, how many times can my heroine roll her eyes?

The answer is 27 time, in two chapters.

Had I submitted that bit of crap to my editor, he might’ve suffered from an eye-rolling sprain.

Not pretty, I know.

Now what can you do if you find yourself with an ugly baby?

A few things:

1)      Dress it up. Add a new, exciting character with a better story line. Then cut the old characters and story line. Basically, write a new book.

2)      Rip it up. Sometimes it’s best to just let a story idea and sometimes a whole manuscript go. Too often we get stuck on a manuscript, on an idea, trying to turn an ugly baby cute when even ten million hours of scalpel-sharp revision wouldn’t make it better.

3)      Let it rip. The ugly baby might all be in our heads. This is when honest feedback from a critique group can save your precious baby. But you have to be able to trust what the critiques say. People don’t like to tell you your baby is ugly, so they nod and smile when asked. That won’t be helpful if your baby really is ugly.

4)      Embrace it. Show the world your ugly baby, and let the world decide what happens next. This is a mindset I see a lot in indie publishing. Sometimes the world loves an ugly baby, a baby that then turns out to be a swan in diapers.

5)      Toss it in a dumpster. Or better yet, that drawer in your desk where all bad manuscripts go to die. Then, in a few years, after 20 more craft classes on revision, 10 on editing, 3 on the hero’s journey, take that baby out and play with it. If it’s still ugly, put it back in the drawer before anyone sees it.

Because I love my RMFW blog readers, I’m going to share a piece of an ugly baby of mine with you:

She struggled, but not too much. Her water soaked hair turned stringy like seaweed, making it almost impossible to see the terror in her eyes, as he held her head under the icy water. He was careful not to mare her snow-white skin. A bubble burst from the water’s surface, filled with the last remnants of oxygen in her lungs. The sound it made as it broke the surface was anticlimactic, a muted death rattle and then silence.

Guess that baby needs a few more years in a drawer before unleashed onto unsuspecting, polite society. Did I actually use the words, snow-white skin? I feel sick…

Since we’re all friends here, give me a bit of your best ugly baby, a sentence, a paragraph, a page, as much as you’d like to share.  Best ugly baby will win a prize.

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J.A. (Julie) Kazimer lives in Denver, CO. Novels include CURSES! A F***ed-Up Fairy Tale, Holy Socks & Dirtier Demons, Dope Sick: A Love Story and FROGGY STYLE as well as the forthcoming book, The Assassin’s Heart. J.A. spent years spilling drinks as a bartender and then stalked people while working as a private investigator. For more about Julie, visit her website and blog.

Connect with Julie on Twitter and Facebook.

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Gadgets and Spreadsheets and Apps, Oh, My!

By Katriena Knights

Like most of us writers, I’m always looking for a way to increase efficiency and up my wordcount. All this while trying not to aggravate my carpal tunnels and managing to spend a couple minutes here and there with the kids. My latest quest for the perfect productivity combo has led me to what I’m finding to be a neat combination of apps on my relatively new iPad and my favorite writing program, Scrivener.

Some history on some of these items first. My best friend introduced me to Scrivener a few years ago, and when I first fiddled with the demo it was like a revelation. I switched from PC to Mac for Scrivener, which I think is a little like converting to a new religion so you can marry that hot guy who’s not the same religion as you. That move alone made writing faster and easier, but it still tethered me to the computer. The next move, when my carpal tunnel started acting up, was to write by hand, then dictate into Scrivener with Dragon Dictate. Which helped my wrists but slowed me down.

I’d resisted getting an iPad for a long time, even though I really really wanted one. I mean I wanted one with the kind of intense lust I usually reserve for broken-nosed, big-shouldered, hockey-playing men. But I couldn’t justify the expense. Finally, my daughter got a hand-me-down iPad for Christmas one year, and after fiddling with it for a while, I decided I could get some use out of it aside from playing Bejeweled for hours. So I bought myself one for Mother’s Day last year.

Well, boy-howdy was that ever a good investment. I started writing ALL THE TIME. I could pop that sucker into my purse and get set up at Starbucks in a quarter of the time it took me to set up with my MacBook Pro. I even liked the touch keyboard for the most part. But using the touchpad plus Notes or Google Docs wasn’t quite cutting it, either.

Enter my BFF yet again, who ran across an app called Werdsmith. I installed the free version, fiddled with it a bit, then decided I didn’t like it and deleted it. I started working in Notes so I didn’t have to have an Internet connection to write. After I wrote a section, I emailed it to myself and dropped it into Scrivener. But that wasn’t covering my bases well enough, either. I wanted to know how many words I was writing in a session, and Notes doesn’t have a wordcount feature (if it does, I never found it, so don’t mock me or anything in the comments if it has one…). Out of curiosity, I downloaded Werdsmith again. For some reason, it made complete sense to me this time. You start with an Idea, then you add a wordcount goal to it and it becomes a Project. Werdsmith tracks your wordcount as you go. Now all I needed was a spreadsheet app. I also got a Logitech Bluetooth keyboard to reduce my weird autocorrect errors and so I could type faster.

I poked around the app store and tried out a few spreadsheet apps until I settled on iSpreadsheet (there’s a predictable app name). I’m still using the free version. I just make a new spreadsheet for each project, or, with longer projects, for each week of work. When I’m done, I export it, email it to myself as a .csv, convert it in Excel, then file it in my folder with the rest of the story files. Here’s an example, converted to a .jpg for your viewing pleasure.

Spreadsheet from iSpreadsheet

iSpreadsheet isn’t all that dynamic, but it does what I need it to do, and it’s free. Also I can put pretty colors on it, and it does a limited number of formulas. I’m not sure what the upgraded version adds other than the ability to create a larger number of individual spreadsheets and no more ads, but for now I’m doing fine with the free one.

So now my wordcount has increased to the point where I can knock out over 1,000 words in a half-hour session, as you can see on the spreadsheet. The Logitech keyboard is for some reason easier on my wrists than my laptop keyboard—maybe because I don’t bang on it as hard when I type. And with the spreadsheet and Werdsmith to keep track of my wordcount, all my tracking and goalsetting needs are in one place. I email my Werdsmith files to myself, drop them into Scrivener, then when the first draft is done, I chop the file into scenes while I’m doing my first edit. When I’m done editing, I export to Word and shoot the file off to my editor. It’s a great system for me so far, and I intend to keep using it until I find another fun gadget or app to add to the workflow.

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Katriena Knights wrote her first poem with she was three years old and had to dictate it to her mother under the bathroom door (her timing has never been very good). Now she’s the author of several paranormal and contemporary romances. She grew up in a miniscule town in Illinois, and now lives in a miniscule town in Colorado with her two children and a variety of pets. For more about Katriena, visit her website and blog

 

What, Precisely, Are Your Intentions?

By Kerry Schafer

Setting Yourself Up For Failure

I’m not a big fan of New Year’s Resolutions. More often than not, I think they set us up for failure rather than success. Some of us start out great with whatever it is we’ve decided to do: write 2000 words a day, go to the gym 5 days a week, lose 20 pounds, whatever. And then we have that day where we don’t write any words. We get busy and miss a couple of days at the gym. We fall to temptation and eat a box of chocolates. Some of us never get started at all. A week goes by, then two or three, and it’s already February and we haven’t even started on our resolution yet, or we’ve failed to follow through.

And then the self talk starts.

Why do I bother? I’m a failure. I’ll never be able to do this, I don’t know why I try… And this gives us the excuse not to try, to fall back to the old ways, which are always more comfortable than change.

For some people resolutions do seem to work. I’m guessing these are people who don’t have a tendency to listen to the negative self talk. They can fall off the exercise/diet/writing wagon, pick themselves up the next day, and carry on. And I’d guess this has everything to do with their focus, which is on the goal and not on the failure.

You Go Where You’re Looking

Remember learning to ride a bicycle? Part of the trick to balancing and driving in a straight line without crashing into the trash cans or parked cars is picking a spot somewhere ahead and keeping your eyes on it. If you turn your head to look at that parked car for very long, chances are good a collision is in your future. Actually, this applies to pretty much anything – skateboarding, driving a car, even walking. You end up where you’re looking.

What Are Your Intentions?

So what is your goal? Often we don’t end up where we think we want to go because really we want to be somewhere else. Our subconscious minds are powerful things. So if you walk around saying that you really want to finally write that novel this year, but really there are ten other goals that are more important to you, chances are the writing is never going to happen. I like the idea of setting intentions because it takes that goal idea one step farther. An intention is, simply, a statement of what you intend to do. This is, incidentally, the best predictor of human behavior. The old standby question asked by fathers of their daughters’ suitors in every comic strip everywhere, “What are your intentions toward my daughter?” is actually a good one. Not that most of those boys will answer honestly, mind you, but if their intention is marriage their behavior will be vastly different than if it’s a one time tumble in the haystack.

Try This

I believe in the power of the written word. Taking a half formed intention that’s simmering in your brain, half conscious, and writing it down (preferably with pen and paper) is a powerful action. It can also help bring you to an understanding of where you really want to go.

1. Fetch a notebook and a pen, clear a half hour somewhere in your busy day, and find some place where you can be undisturbed.

2. Now, imagine that it is December 31st, 2014. You are taking a quiet moment on New Year’s Eve to review the past year and all that you have accomplished. In the present tense, write quickly and without stopping, detailing your successes of the year and how you feel about them.

3. Take that page (or pages) that you have written, and put them in a place that acknowledges the importance of this intention to you. Ideas include: under your pillow so you can dream of what you are going to accomplish, in a special container on the windowsill, in your jewelry box with other treasured items.

4. Let simmer, and see what happens.

Next month: taking it one step further with an action plan

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Kerry Schafer’s first novel, Between, was published in February 2013 and the sequel, Wakeworld, is slated to hit shelves and e-readers on January 28, 2014. Kerry is both a licensed mental health counselor and an RN, and loves to incorporate psychological and medical disorders into her fantasy books. She is a bit of a hypocrite who does not always practice the relaxation she preaches. You can find out more on her website, www.kerryschafer.com, or find her on Twitter as @kerryschafer or on her Facebook page Kerry Schafer Books

The Blank Spaces In Our Stories: The Messages Writers Send Readers Between the Words

 

By Kym-n-Mark Todd

As writers, we all spend lots of time thinking about narrative craft – plot, character, setting, dialog – but what about the blank spaces between all those words?

Readers don’t give much thought to those spaces – unless they’re missing. So it’s up to writers to fill the blanks with implied meaning. And it’s part of the unwritten “contract” we create every time we ask a reader to invest storytime with us.

Part 3 – The Blank Spaces between Books: Why we break or conclude a stand-alone story or conclude one arc as a book in a multi-book series

We’ve all seen them. They populate Amazon’s best-selling lists, or the host of suggestions on Goodreads, or the rankings in Publishers Weekly.

Series are an ever increasing trend, and not just the three-book deal. Try five books, or ten, or more.

And it’s the spaces between the suffixed listings of “#1,” “#2,” #3,” ad infinitum that add to the story – or rather, the promise of a premise much larger than a single story can contain.

When we wrote the first Silverville Saga book, Little Greed Men, we intended our story as a one-off, a stand-alone. And we maintain there’s nothing wrong with an autonomous tale. The space after a stand-alone – literal and implied – that follows the terminal announcement of “The End” tells its own message: The story arc is done, the world expressed, the characters sufficient unto a single novel.

When a reader picks up such a novel from the book or library shelf, noticing no sequels rest in slots on either side, there’s a certain writer-reader contractual understanding that announces, “All bets are off.” The protagonist may perish or the world end. The blank space at the end is reserved to ponder the reading just finished, perhaps to wonder what might happen next, but in any event preserving the reader’s prerogative to interpret the close of the story however that reader wants. The author doesn’t usurp the reader’s forward-imagining suppositions with a sequel.

But sequels – and prequels – offer the cadre of a story’s fans an undeniable opportunity to reenter a cherished world, to revisit character-friends, and to experience some of the things readers best liked about the previous tale.

Our first Silverville book went through two successful editions, and each time the small-press publisher urged us to consider a sequel. But we were wary. We didn’t want to write a same-song/second verse follow-up to the original, and we felt we’d said what we wanted to say the first time. It wasn’t until that press closed its operation and gave us back the book that we reconsidered – and then only because the new press who bid for the book wanted a sequel.

Our solution? We finally realized that one of the most important characters of that book was the fictitious setting – the town of Silverville itself, a seemingly ordinary place that punched holes in the mundane reality of its inhabitants and visitors. And if we’d told one version of what that place could do to a particular set of characters, we could create other scenarios for characters with different agendas. We locked in on the words that now appear on the covers of all the books: “Silverville, where anything is possible.”

We’d discovered the promise of a premise that could sustain a muti-novel series.

In our case, we feel we haven’t abandoned the blank space at the end of each story because we still write each book as a stand-alone. But we’ve also compromised a bit, allowing certain larger story arcs to overlap from book to book or bringing back certain characters we like or even love to hate.

If Silverville Saga (now dubbed) #1 considers the possibility of interaction with extraterrestrials, then Silverville Saga #2 All Plucked Up delves into a curse, Silverville #3 The Magicke Outhouse explores the consequences of time-travel, and Silverville Saga #4 Colorado Boo(m) Town brings on the chaos of inter-dimensional ghosts.

The blank spaces between the separate novels let a reader drop into our “Silververse” between any ending and any beginning of any story, but the anything-is-possible premise is our implied promise for the entire series.

We’ve tried to do the same with this three-part blog series: The overarching premise is blank spaces around the ever larger blocks of words that we and all writers assemble. But each of the parts requires a different approach since each has distinctive implications.

The next time you write a sentence, a section, a chapter, a book, or a series, remember to think about the messages you send your readers when you place blank spaces outside your word

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By day, Kym is a graphic designer, Mark a writing teacher and director of Western State College University’s MFA program in Creative Writing; by night, they’re caped crusa – er, writers. They collaborate on the paranormal adventure-comedy Silverville Saga series, including Little Greed Men, All Plucked Up, The Magicke Outhouse (forthcoming next month), and Colorado Boo(m) Town (forthcoming in late 2014) – all published by Raspberry Creek Books. Mark is also author of the SF novel, Strange Attractors – A Story about Roswell, and two collections of poetry, Wire Song and Tamped, But Loose Enough to Breathe.

 

The Blank Spaces in our Stories: The Messages Writers Send Readers Between The Words

 

By Kym-n-Mark Todd

As writers, we all spend lots of time thinking about narrative craft – plot, character, setting, dialog – but what about the blank spaces between all those words?

Readers don’t give much thought to those spaces – unless they’re missing. So it’s up to writers to fill the blanks with implied meaning. And it’s part of the unwritten “contract” we create every time we ask a reader to invest storytime with us.
Part 2 – Why we break to new scenes or new chapters: The blank spaces between narrative sections

Poets know all about blank space. Dana Gioia, former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts and a fine poet in his own “write,” defines poetry as “writing where the right-hand margin matters.” He’s talking, of course, about controlling the empty space in the margins as a way to draw attention to what’s important in the words.

Authors use this strategy as well to signal important transitions by using what are called ellipses or space-jumps – the insertion of extra space or a cluster of asterisks between one block of paragraphs and a consecutive block of paragraphs within a chapter.

The implied contract between writer and reader concerning ellipses usually specifies one or more of the following:

  • a change in narrator
  • a change in place
  • a change in time

We personally love this little manipulation of blank space. It’s purely our own preference, but we use this transition to set up mini-cliffhangers, interrupting key sequences with other subplots designed (we hope) to keep readers from going to bed at night. (By the way, we hate it when our favorite authors do this to us, and you only have to look at the dark circles under our eyes to see how effective we find this technique.)

We also adhere to the other unwritten law of maintaining a single point of view within a section between ellipses. Following this practice helps readers see who’s important within a section, but it also allows for a bit of creative irony.

For example, in Silverville Saga, #1, Little Greed Men, we use ellipses to set up an important misunderstanding between protagonist Bill Noble, a minor con artist who’s come to town, and the local woman who wins his heart, Skippy Price. Billy idealizes her, not knowing she has her own shady past. When we’re in Billy’s head, readers see how he views Skippy; when we shift to Skippy’s head, readers find out more than Billy will ever know. That’s called dramatic irony, and it’s the ellipses that let readers in on important insights neither character finds out.

The blank space between scenes also lets the reader move to new places or different times without having to walk through the implied, mundane progression of the story. And who wants to read – let along write – scenes that are boring? These snap-your-fingers-and-poof transitions accustom readers to accept sudden changes, and even sequences that alter the order of linear events without resorting to cumbersome signal words such as “but before that,” or “much later than that.”

Thinking about transitions brings us to the larger ellipses embedded in most novels called chapter breaks, divisions which hold a lot of implied fine print in the writer-reader contract.

We doubt readers expect all authors to handle chapter breaks the same way (we’re don’t when we wear our reader hats, and we bet you don’t either). Nevertheless, it helps readers sort out what this bigger use of white space means if authors break for new chapters using some internally consistent rationale. It’s akin to expecting a good fantasy world to adhere to internally consistent magic.

We don’t use the same strategy in every novel we write but, unless something alternative seems to fit the story better, we do have a default: plotted episodes. We’ll use a chapter – though sometimes we use a larger division, the so-called “part”  – like a playwright or screenwriter builds tension through different acts (with the scenes inside each act divided by ellipses). Of course, we also interlace the scenes within chapters, interrupting one with the next to create those mini-cliffhangers we mentioned above.

Sometimes we’ve let chapters tell cohesive subplots, letting the space between chapters signal that what follows will all deal with the same thread within the story. And other times we’ve allowed chapters to be faithful to just one narrator for each chapter.

So long as the various divisions – those blank spaces between the words – are consistent and help guide readers through the story, it doesn’t really matter what the sections signal. So long as YOU know what it means when you decide to insert extra space.

But does the end of the novel mean the end of the story? The biggest implied space may exist between books – the subject of the third and final part of this series.

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By day, Kym is a graphic designer, Mark a writing teacher and director of Western State Colorado University’s MFA program in Creative Writing; by night, they’re caped crusa – er, writers. They collaborate on the paranormal adventure-comedy Silverville Saga series, including Little Greed Men, All Plucked Up, The Magicke Outhouse (forthcoming next month), and Colorado Boo(m) Town (forthcoming in late 2014) – all published by Raspberry Creek Books. Mark is also author of the SF novel, Strange Attractors – A Story about Roswell, and two collections of poetry, Wire Song and Tamped, But Loose Enough to Breathe.