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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Bringing Life to your Characters (ConCarolinas 2012 Writing Panel Notes)

"There's a Cat in There" © 2012 Laura Sheana Taylor. Charlie loves to hide beneath our Christmas tree. Through the branches you can barely see the face of a cat.

Slow-clap time. Yup, more way-belated notes from ConCarolinas 2012. And yaaay, I'm going to ConCarolinas 2013! I honestly wasn't sure if I could ... but hey. Nothing like being in a car that was rear-ended and finally getting an insurance settlement for it, six months later. Yeah. Sigh. Okay, I got off easy. But I still haven't made it back to sword class ...

So. I've been busy revising-following-agent-requests-at-SIWC, beta-reading (for one must give in order to also receive), and suffering through the latest nasty plague going around. But I survived, just in time for the holidays. At the start of the month, well before I came down with that awful cold, I made new discoveries on how to ensure a smooth tiger butter. I'll be sharing those fun facts shortly. Promise. No, really, I mean it ...

But first, enjoy these notes.

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Bringing Life to Your Characters
Edmund Schubert, James Maxey, Faith Hunter, Terry W. Erwin II, 
A.J. Hartley, Teresa Frohock, John G. Hartness
Moderator: David B. Coe

Bringing life to living characters who are alive, creating believable characters

DBC: What is your biggest challenge?
TF: Keeping the focus on the main character, the protagonist
JM: The character has to be constantly learning from their experiences. A lot of that goes into the foundation of any character you create. What was their childhood like? What shaped them as they grew into an adult? What shaped them? Healthy well-adjusted people are not his typical character. His typical character are broken, not necessarily great people.
JH: Information hoarding – not telling the reader what the main charaacters’ dirty little secrets are, except bit by bit (1 or 2 a book). Little pieces here and there, backstory in dribs and drabs.
FH: Outlines her books – the conflict thoroughly. Every *thing*. Just doesn’t know exactly how the characters are going to react to things.
AJ: Middlegrade/YA vs adult; When dealing with younger chars, they don’t have as much backstory, haven’t had time to accumulate baggage; the biggest thing was that there’s such little difference otherwise. RL Stein: “Most things that scare kids are the same that scare adults. People are afraid of the dark, the unknown, things with lots of legs, etc.” Shift in mindset was to stop worrying about it. Easier to just think of them as people he could write. With Macbeth, someone else’s character, he takes his experience in theatre, sees it in theatres and treats it accordingly. Even though these chars are familiar, in some ways they’re blank slates. Took them as his protagonists. Made his characters people.

DBC: What do you look for in a character?
ES: (What does he look for in character)? There are so many things that don’t work. What does work: What makes him want to spend time with a char is  one entertaining and surprising at the same time. Not theatrical, but interesting to be around. By getting to see all the different sides of them. Tries to make the protags dirty as possible while keeping them likable, antagonists who are doing horrible things for the best reasons possible.  Compressing compelling chars into a short story? It’s challenging. So much harder to write great short story. Short stories have to be laser-like in focus. One or two key details to tell the reader what he needs to know. Katniss in The Hunger Games – you get the sense she’s trying to take care of her sister and mother, but she loves her sister so she lets the awful cat stay. Efficient, effective opening In the first 5 pages, worth studying.

DBC: Are there elements to writing comedic vs. serious characters?
JH: What really helps define a character: choice of dialogue. Also background in theatre. Reading dialogue, being able to dial in your dialogue really does help. You set the tone for a char. Has to catch himself when writing the straight guy. Being serious is a challenge. Also steals from the classic tropes of comedy.

DBC (to JM): Did you have a different approach in your superhero books vs. your Dragon Forge books?
JM: Uses a lot of tropes in action. Protagonist has the burden of changing, but the comic relief are tropes. In his action novels he has the character type he’d call the badass. He doesn’t need all of them to have a lot of internal conflict. But can’t wirte a book with just these tpes of chars. Needs someone who’s weak. Someone who’s changes. Also, we want to know what a character’s intentions are. What they want to accomplish.

TF: You don’t always want to insert 21st century attitudes into historical characters.  As much as we’d like to think that we’d do better, she wants them to act and react realistically. She needs to be conscious of their thought processes. “Your story is your character’s emotional growth  Your plot is how you get him there. And all the things that happen to the character will enhance the story and promote that emotional growth.”

DBC: What about point of view?

TE: What’s the best way to tell the story to the reader? Which POV works best? E.g. 1st person – can be useful, can be tricky. The reader learns as the character learns. Still some mystery about that character.

FH: Beast and Jane – first person point of view. Must include all parts of them. The multiple personalities. Editor made sure 2 first person voices are different.  POV is whoever body they’re in. The most important POV is whichever body they’re in.

AJ: ACT OF WILL – First person. DARWEN ARKWRIGHT AND THE PEREGRINE PACT: Third person. In case of Will, when you tell a story in first person the story becomes about the character. Everything’s mediated by the character. Every sense, every impression. Middle grade third person, very limited to just Darwen, you see nothing the character isn’t present for. This is a standard for middle grade right now. Close enough to him that we’re never really outside of his conscious.

DBC: Audience question: Sherlock's not a sympathetic character, but that’s why Watson’s there. What have you done with your non-sympathetic characters?

DBC: Yes, the main character in the Winds of the Forelands wasn’t sympathetic, but his supporting cast was. Hard not just because he was mean, spoiled, and obnoxious, but because these other chars affected him and he grew.

FH: Jane Yellowrock isn’t likeable herself, but she has those around her to love, which makes her easier to like

ES: Even if we don’t like a character, we can respect him.

AJ: Will is not likeable, but he’s charming.

Audience Question: What about characters with Otherness?

JH: You can’t relate to the other, unless you find a way to write the other so they’re something you understand.

JM: Dragons and Vampires can explain themselves, if they can talk, but if your story is about the difficulty of communicating with an alien/other mind,that itself can be a major part of the story.

AJ: Even if it’s just people from a different period, you lose the reader.
DBC: The inscrutability brings terror. But if you want them to have emotions.

Audience Question: Can you write any good heroes anymore, outside of YA, just the good guy who’s a good guy?

AJ: Yes if he’s also crap at a lot of stuff.

TE: Make him relateable. Who tries to do the right thing but doesn’t always succeed. Just keep them human. Not perfect.

ES: Whatever you do, your char must have some flaws, things to overcome. An internal struggle as well as an external struggle.

JH: You can play a paladin, just make him a paladin with a dexterity of 4.

Audience chime-in: Put the character in situations where he can't uphold his moral code.

JH: Torture your characters – half the fun of being a writer (torturing your readers the other half)

DBC (on villains): The degree of which you can make sympathetic villains, and the blending of flawed and good for both characters, is also important. Not just evil for evil’s sake. Every character is the hero of their own story. Even the villains.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Worldbuilding: Maps

Hi everyone! Good news: I finished NaNo early this year. It energized me with a new story that has been aching to be told for years, an urban fantasy that is very different from the YA high fantasy I typically write. So I stuck it in a drawer until I can come back to it with fresh eyes unclouded by the quantity-over-quality madness that cheerfully defines NaNoWriMo. I'll be back later this week with more notes, finally, but yesterday a conversation on worldbuilding at Magical Words led to the discussion of maps, so I thought I'd talk about that first.

I love drawing maps. It's about all I can draw (hence why I consider myself very fortunate to have artist friends who can do better than I when it comes to character sketches). But I love it.

Passions can wax and wane, but I believe this one will always stay with me. Aside from knowing not to put a searing desert beside a frozen tundra (okay, and being able to describe geological features through the eyes of my characters), this has to be the biggest and best use of my Geography degree.

I've been focused so much on revising and writing lately, especially as I prepare Sign of the Star for submission to agents, but it was nice to remind myself of this. I'll be re-drawing the map of Nem soon to fit all of the changes made to the story since it was first created. I can't wait to get started again.

Map for the webcomic The Dementia of Magic by Nicholas Killewald. © Laura Sheana Taylor.
Map drawn for the land of the webcomic The Dementia of Magic by Nicholas Killewald.
Map drawn for a now-defunct roleplaying game, Lycoria, at Speculative Vision.

Original map of the part of the world where Sign of the Star takes place. I'll be revising this soon.
Map of Takara, a world that hope to one day come back to, but not for some time, because I want to do its stories justice when I do.

Sketch-map for a friend for an abandoned project of his. I like drawing contour lines, can you tell?
So, yeah. Maps are fun. *grins* Back with those previously-promised notes later this week!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Pacing: Keeping the Action Going (SIWC 2012 Notes)

"Faster, Pussycat. Write, write!  © 2012 Laura Sheana Taylor. Pixel lays on her back, swiping at something above her. It looks like she's giving directions.
 Aaaand we're back with the first set of notes from SIWC 2012.

Which was awesome, by the way. I took a different approach this time around; rather than just attending panels, I remembered why I was really there, and so I took some more time to focus on pitching. What I said last post still holds true: I need to focus on sending my manuscript out. So I don't have *as* many notes to share this time around, and I'm okay with that.

The first set comes from a request I received from another attendee of the panel, who had to duck out to pitch his own novel. Could I send him my notes? I had to clean up these notes before sending them, so I thought it would be a great kick in the pants to get me to post them, too.

This class actually took place on the Sunday, the last day of the conference, but I love the subject matter. I found it very useful. Pacing is one of those things I know intuitively, but can't put into words very easily. And the tips here are great for doing what Donald Maass recommends, "Increase tension!"

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Pacing: Keeping the Action Going
 Boyd Morrison

A great rollercoaster ride is as much about the buildup of suspension as it is about the thrills. You want to know what’s going to happen next to the characters.

Suspense can be used in *any* type of fiction.

First rule: There are no rules.
-   Writing is subjective. You may hate the book I love, you may love a book I can’t stand, and that’s okay.
-   Everybody has a different writing style and method.
-   But when you’re doing something that many others caution against doing, be sure you know why, and make sure it’s for the right reasons. (And make sure you do it well!)
-   Take all pronoucncements you hear in a writing seminar with a grain of salt (e.g. “You must never outline” vs. “You must always outline”. Think about them critically and decide whether the guidance works for you. Will that criticism make the story better, or is something important to the story you’re telling?

-    Think about how you tell a story verbally to someone you know – imagine the reader yawning, rolling their eyes, looking art their watch. Anything that would make you do these things, leave it out.
-    Elmore Leonard: “try to eave out the parts that readers tend to skip”
-    Exclamation points not necessary unless a character is shouting. Esp not in narrative. The words should convey the excitement of the action.
-    Everything in the book should advance the plot. By knowing where you are (describing settings), who the characters are (show how characters react and the reader will get what kind of person they are), and by conjuring mystery about what will happen next.  

What does “Fast Paced” mean?
-    It’s about rhythm and momentum. Building momentum as the story goes.
-    A thriller should be like a roller coaster: Build-up of suspense going up the first the first hill. The release and exhilaration fot ehfall. In a novel, the biggest hill should be the end of the ride.
-    Give breathing room after an action scene. Allow the reader to build up adrenaline stores for the next action scene. Without the quiet scenes between the action scenes, it will be too much. Pull back and catch up – how does the action change the characters, change the plot, what do you need to know for the next action scene? Eg. in the video game Halo – the music gets fast-paced until the last bad guy is killed, then the music slows down. When he writes, he listens to movie soundtracks for this very reason. (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Inception)
-    Vary the sentence structure of writing depending on the type of scene. Shorter sentences and paragraphs speed up the pace. Your eye flows down the page very quickly. You have the sense that you don’t have time for long sentences. They're trying to not get killed! They don’t have time to look at the pretty scenery. Long descriptions will seem inappropriate in a gun fight.

In media res
-    In media res: In the middle of things.
-    Start the story already in progress. Begin by presenting a scenario that invites questions from the reader.
-    Start from character. A sentence that doesn’t orient you to character doesn’t drive the reader.
-    Don’t begin with backstory, character descript, weather, or scene setting. Start with evoking a question.
-    Dreams of waking up in bed are cliché. If you have them wake up, it has to be in a very weird situation. Unless it’s unique, it will be rejected. And dreams? You’re cheating the reader by giving them a sense that something didn’t really happen.
-    Explain things later. Keep questions in readers mind.
-    A prologue is fine as long as it directly affects the story that follows. Sometimes if the rest of the book answers what happened in the prologue, then it can work. But if it doesn’t relate to the rest of the bk, then it shouldn’t be there.
-    Kurt Vonnegut: “Start as close to the end as possible.” The latest you can start the story and still make it work.

-    Setting the rules. The reader should understand what’s at stake, who the players are, and what the consequences of the action will be. Suspense results from the reader understanding and caring about what happens to the characters. What are the consequences of the character not succeeding? Explain the rules to the reader. And give your readers a reason to care about the character. “To make them immediately sympathetic, make them kind to a puppy or kitten” You also want the reader to feel relief when the villain is defeated.
-    Alfred Hitchcock’s theory of suspense: Surprise is when a bomb blows up in a restaurant; suspense is knowing the ticking bomb is under the table when the character sits down for dinner. Surpise is shocking and the aftermath is tragic, but suspense does so much more.
-    Seed your resolutions from the beginning. If your character offs the villain with a drill, don’t introduce it in the paragraph before. Find a place in the book with enough distance so that the reader forgets about it, but still thinks it’s clever when it’s ultimatey used. If you show a gun on the mantle in the first act, you gotta use it by the third act.

-    Coincidence can kick off a story; believability is the key.
-    Don’t use coincidence ot make things better for the protagonist. It’s a cheat, and readers will call you on it. Too convenient. Eg. rain when the house is on fire. If the gunman’s shot goes awry because the sun got in his eyes, it can’t be because the clouds suddenly parted; but it *is* okay if the protagonist used a hidden mirror to shine the sun in his eyes. But the mirror has to be there for a believable reason, too. You have to put a lot of thought into making the plots work. Not just because it’s convenient.
-    Coincidence can make things worse for the protagonist – just don’t overuse it. Don’t have floods, tornadoes, Acts of God, and bad luck making things worse for the hero. Have the villain make things worse.

-    Have them at the end of every chapter; it's a page-turning factor.
-    Avoid direct foreshadowing. “Lttle did he know, but he had less than five minutes to live”. Be subtle. Don’t clobber the reader over the head with things. Use only info the character would know.
-    Pose a new question to the reader. Doesn’t have to be life or deah; should pertain to plot or character, pref both. A new discovery.
-    Don’t save a character’s life at the end of a chapter. Unless it unveils a new mystery or plot problem. And don’t save the life in the first sentence of the next chapter. We know readers will skip forward. Even better, switch to a different scene, something totally different.
-    Try to end chapters on a strong note, particularly the last sentence or even last word. Especially viscerals.

Enter late, leave early
-    The “Law and Order” technique
-    Void showing mundane activities: opening doors, driving directions, etc. Just enough to make the reader understand what’s happening. Unless it’s germane to the plot. If it’s important.
-    Skip traveling scenes. Have characters teleport to the next place. Unless exposition or curuicial events happen during the travel.
-    Skip all the stuff we know happens: Sleeping, eating, bathroom breaks, and any other normal routine. Unless it’s important, leave it out! If it’s not routine, include it, but only if it relates to the plot.
-    Flash forward to the next part of the story that’s important. Summarize anything pertinent that happens in between. But don't have whole chapters about it.

-    Only include 10% of the research you do.
-    Don’t info-dump. Dole it out a little at a time.
-    Don’t have a character explaining something another character should already know. E.g. “As you know, Dr. Tindale, the liver produces enzymes critical to…” – Include a character who’s new to the situation or isn’t a subject matter expert. Explaining jargon doesn’t work unless that new character’s there, to make it as simple as possible to understand.
-    Long exposition and paragraphs slow stories to a crawl. Limit those, and try to put as much of that in dialogue as you can.
-    Leaning things is fun for readers, but balance it with story.

-    White space makes for a fast read. When people talk about a page turner, they mean that literally, because there’s a lot of dialogue and it
-    Use dialogue tags sparingly. But don’t confuse the reader about who is talking. Try to crate the characters such that you could tell who’s speaking just by their style, grammar, and syntax
-    Avoid spelling out a drawl or patois – usually it’s confusing or distractiogn. Can be conveyed by word choices. Eg “Alabama Accent”. And a Southern person uses colloquialisms.
-    Avoid dialogue tags other than “Said” and LEAVE OUT ADVERBS modifying “said”. You can use other words sometimes, especially when it’s odd – e.g. “I’m going to kill you,” she whispered.
-    Avoid monologue-ing. Can put conflict and interjections into that. Long blocks of dialogue are daunting to a reader. Short sentences work. Unless the villain has an agenda for the monologue.

-    Give the protagionist a high personal stake in the outcome. James Bond saving the country is okay, but in Casino Royale, he has a stake in the girl – and isn't just doing this because it’s his job. The best thillers have that personal reason, sometimes internal (eg a sense of justice because the hero’s family was killed and he doesn’t want other families killed; a characters being depending on how he solves a case)
-    Life or death stakes are reliably gripping. But the reader has to care about the people who live or die. Without them feeling that stake, they don’t care. We can’t imagine ourselves as a hundred thousand people dying in a nearthquake, but
-    The stakes should get progressively higher as the novel develops. Gets worse as the story goes on, more personal. Two steps forward, one step back. Apply frustration and conflict. They’re not fun inreal life, but they’re essential in storytelling. You don’t want to make it easy for your protagonist!

-    Make it unlikely for your protagonist to survive or whin. Overwhelimg odds against achieving goasl. The protagonist’s flaw simede progress.
-    Make your villain better than your protagonist in some ways. But give your villain flaws, some wof which he may not even not think are flaws. They may see them as advantages, even. (e.g. superconfidence – the theory they’ll awyas be right, something your protagonist can take advantage of to succeed.) Why are the henchmen willing to throw away their lives?
-    Don’t make the obstacles occur by random chance. (e.g. a tornado randomly wiping out evidence).
-    Use obstacles to raise the stakes. One flows from another.

The Ticking Clock
-    Add  a ticking clock, then shorten it.
-    Countdowns can be extremely tense.
-    Remind the reader of the timeline on a regular basis. But don’t hammer it down the reader's throat; work it in naturally.
-    Orient the reader in time. Can be difficult in international thrillers with characters in multiple time zones. Try to make it natural. If one scene is happening in Vanouver and another in London, there’s a 9 hr time difference. Don’t make the reader waste time doing calculations.
-    Keep track of the time.
-    Make sure there’s enough time for the events and action. Can all the things happen in that time period? Have beta-readers double check.

Action Scenes
-    Don’t pause in the middle of the action. If someone’s shooting at you, you don’t think back to your childhood. You’re trying to figure out how not to die.
-    Details, however, can seem more pronounced or intense. Memories of intense or traumatic events can be triggered by odors, so don’t forget the sense of smell, in addition to sight, sound, feel (texture of ground?), even taste (the bile at the back of your throat or the gunpowder residue landing on your tongue). Not just sight and sound.
-    Make the action plausible. Make sure someone can’t keep shooting because they’re out of bullets. Factor in number of bullets and time to reload. Can build that into the suspense of the scene.
-    Describe the setting beforehand so that the reader doesn’t get lost. So that it doesn’t need to be described during the action scene. Lay out in detail so it can be referenced when needed. Otherwise
-    GET THE GUN INFO RIGHT. Readers hate it when you get it wrong. But does your character know about the gun? It’s more plausible if they don’t know, and you don’t describe it directly.
-    Sometimes shock is fine.

Flashbacks and Dreams
-    Use flashbacks with caution.
-    Like prologues, they should be directly linked to the sotry.
-    Keep them short.
-    If you use dreams to foreshadow, don’t be heavy-handed with theme. Also, DON’T start a novel with a dream; it deceives the reader, who won’t trust you after that (Inception is a good example of an exception done well)

Switching POV
-    When writing in third-person multi POV, change POV from chapter to chapter
-    Works especially well when thera re two related but separate plot threads going simultaneously.
-    BUT don’t switch within a scene – called “”Head-hopping” and can be confusing to a reader. Takes reader out of story.
-    Try to limit POVs to only three or four main characters. You can add in minor characters’ POV, but do it sparingly.

The Payoff
-    Don’t rush it. This is what readers have spent 400 pages waiting to see.
-    No deus ex machina – the protagonist cannot be rescued, the protagonist has to use resourcefulness, skill, stamina, or willpower to defeart the enemy. That’s satisfying to the reader.
-    Make the villain get an appropriate comeuppance. Make sure they know they didn’t succeed before they die.
-    Answer all the big questions and resolve all the plot threads.
-    Leave the reader wanting more.

Donald Maass uses lots of thriller novels for examples in Writing the Breakout Novel; Writers Digest has a lot of books, too; How to Write a Damned Good Thriller.

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More notes to follow; in the meantime, you know what month this is, folks. NaNoWriMo! 'Scuze me while I go write 50K. ^__^

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Case of the Mystery iPod

"Mystery iPod" © Laura Sheana Taylor, 2012. Metallic blue iPod. I scored this for five bucks at a garage sale. But what if its contents are worth way more?
This is just a quick note to say that yes, I am well aware that I haven't updated my blog in weeks.  Mostly, this is because I have been revising like mad because hey, SIWC 2012 starts on Thursday. (Okay, and I paused for a breather, and I have another WIP that I'veplotted in earnest in preparation for NaNoWriMo. But mostly the revising thing.) To be perfectly honest, as someone not much published yet, I think my focus needs to be on my work, and this blog is fun, but it can wait right now. There's a novel to be polished.

I still have ConCarolinas 2012 notes.

This is going to be the running joke, isn't it?

Regardless, I still think the notes are worth sharing. One of the nice things about my belatedness is that it often brings back fond memories of SIWC and ConCarolinas long after the fact.

So I'll be back soon with notes from both ConCarolinas and SIWC, but no promises as to when.

In the meantime: here's an interesting writing prompt for you.

See that beat-up iPod in the photo? The college where I work had a garage sale on Wednesday. Some of the things sold include items turned into Security but not claimed after a year. I scored that for five bucks. People were dubious about whether it would work, especially since the top panel (not pictured) is missing. But I took it home, plugged it into an i-charger (yay ubiquity) and sure enough, it works just fine

Sure, I could wipe it and use it as a spare, but I don't need a spare, not right now. But here's the thing: it still had all of the former owner's music loaded onto it.

What is that music? What does it tell me about the original owner?

This sort of thing definitely gets my creative juices flowing. Tell me, what do you think? Who was this guy or girl? What sort of playlist was it? What if the person I assume it is by profiling the playlist is nothing like I think?

Have fun, kids. See you on the other side of SIWC 2012.

In the meantime, it should be noted, however belatedly, that Charlie Holmberg was kind enough to interview me for the "Someday Stars" feature of her blog at the end of August. Want to know what I'm up to? There you go. The only update to that is these revisions I'm working on, when in the interview I state that SotS is complete. I am so grateful for my beta-readers, who it must be noted are *awesome*.

Monday, August 13, 2012

I Believe in Magic (ConCarolinas 2012 Writing Panel Notes)

"Literal Meltdown" © 2012 Laura Sheana Taylor. The laptop overheated so much that it melted upon itself, and fried the RAM.

So about those ConCarolinas notes.

Ever experience a dramatic event that throws you off your game? Well, this is what happened to me. Look at the picture above. See that shiny glob of gold splotched onto the RAM? I knew my laptop had an overheating problem. I just hadn't realied how bad it was until it imploded. I joked with friends that my computer had a meltdown, and I thought it was hyperbole. Then my friend Drekian was over at my place for a write-in and killed time waiting for the others to arrive. So he took apart the dead laptop for fun. Turns out, it actually melted down.

Anyway, everything's good again. The universe was nice to me; the night it stopped working, I found an amazing deal at Best Buy to replace the poor pile of sludge. All is well again. I've let it interrupt my blogging rhythm. But now, I'm ready to get back to work!

So without further adieu, here's more notes; and what could be more fitting after all that technology stuff than for us to talk about magic?

* * *

I Believe in Magic
Betty Cross, Faith Hunter, Kalayna Price, Rachel A. Aaron 
Moderator: Stuart Jaffe

There’s a wide-spectrum of what you can do with magic. From Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga (magic is created by ingesting certain bits of metal for certain effects) to [missed example] (“Magic is anything we say”).

Tell us about your magical systems.
-     BC: Falls closer to Brandon Sanderson. Finds amature writers make magical powers unlimited, with lots of Deus ex machina. Superman has to have Kryptonite.
-    FH: Has written two magical systems. Rogue Mage – learning how to use raw energy with the abilities each mage is born with. It’s a gift they have to learn themselves, like a  child teaching themselves to walk. The limits: if you don’t learn it and you overuse it, you explode. Jane Yellowrock – she’s a Skinwalker, which is learned. Jane has the skill but was only taught a bit before losing her teacher. Her new work involves a pre-set system ahead of time. Some people come up with their magical systems first. She does a lot of figuring out how her magic works as she goes.
-    KP: Two different magic systems – Does worldubilding and character-creating at the same time, because the society will determine how the magic is used. Haven: Magic is underground. Grave Witch: everyone knows about magic.
-    RA: Creates magical systems for fun. Her spirit world – everything has a spirit, have to work with those spirits
-    SJ: Difference between external and internal magic. In his world, most of the knowledge is lost. Characters are discovering their powers with the reader.

How much do you find you have to reveal about the magic system?
-    RA: Plots an info map of who knows what. Plotting how much to reveal, misunderstandings about magic, stopping to think about how you reveal the information, means you can do amazing things with tension, who knows what.
-    KP: Establishing what the magic is very quickly is very important, but establishing the full parameters goes through the book. But make rules and *stick* with them. Unless you have a very sound plot reason that changes things, that is plausible.
-    FH: No rules for Rogue Mage, until she made the roleplaying game. Has had to make rules for that. Has learned to create systems and write stories based on that. Likes the revelatory process of discovering the magic as she goes. Plots out a lot of her books, big outlines, so discovering the magic is fun, but then she sticks by the rules.
-    BC: Big on having limits on her magic. Characters explain magic by reference to other magic.

Do you create a bible, a document to make sure you stick to your rules?
-   RA: Stays true to the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law. Based on a fundamental understanding of the system.
-    FH & KP: create bibles.
-    SJ: Only one rule: if it works, it works.
-    KP: Readers will only suspend disbelief so far
-    RA: If you break a rule, you have to have a good reason.

Creating magic based on myths and folklore:
-    KP: Has twisted bits of folklore based on what her books need
-    SJ: Example: Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon – blends myth and magic
-    FH: Skinwalker – lots of research into pre-Christian, NA tribal version of skinwalkers.
-    RA: Important to remember, you’re not chained to the folklore. It’s your book.

What about weird stuff for the sake of weird stuff?
-    There is an audience (e.g. China Meiville)
-    SJ: We’re coming out of the 80s and 90s with big thick trilogies, medieval fantasy was really selling, that seemed to be canon. That’s no longer the case.

And what about stepping on the toes, borrowing/stealing other magical systems?
-    BC: It’s okay. Writers do it all the time.
-    FH: With enough twists that a creative mind can put into their own work, don’t worry. Make changes. You can give a plot line or magical system to ten different writers and they’ll go ten different ways.
-    SJ: Everyone’s coming up with new takes. Look at how many different takes there are on vampires.

Can you draw from real magical systems?
 -    Sure, those are great sources for inspirations. E.g. Voodoo, paganism, high magic,
-    KP: If you’re going to use beliefs currently in practice, be respectful.
-    BC: Can be very subtle about it. E.g has system based on Kabbalah

Can you combine sex and magic?
-    FH: No limits for the genre. Fantasy as a genre can become erotica very easily. Depends on what you want to write. Kushiel is very mainstream. But other books can be powerful, terrifying, and off-putting. LKH does it well, even though she’s changed. Do it well, you can stay mainstream; don’t do it well and you can fall into a different group. Sex must forward the plot, not just be titillation.  Otherwise it’s erotica.

Other things to keep in mind: 
-    KP: You can explain less if you can assume the reader is well-versed in a similar magic system.
-    Good to have the good guys screw up. Magic can be a source of humour, be funny.
-    Remember to think of the consequences. You MUST build consequences into your magical system. The magic shapes the story. So the consequences are an integral part. That’s an integral part of the conflict.
-    Any magical system can be used for good. Even necromancy. Any magic can be used any way you want, it just depends on how you build your system.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Next Step (ConCarolinas 2012 Writing Panel Notes)

"Whistler in Sight" - The view of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains from across the valley. The mountains are grand in the distance. Tall trees frame the view from this side of the valley. Photo taken near Whistler, B.C., Canada. © 2011 Laura Sheana Taylor. 

Here's a look at what we should be doing once we've finished writing a novel.

* * *

The Next Step

Authors: John G. Harness, Misty Massey, Terry W. Ervin II, Edmund Schubert, Gray Rinehart 
Moderator: David B. Coe

So you’ve finished your book … what now?
- This is assuming that you’ve already sent it to beta-readers and edited it.
- Having a good beta group geared towards publishing really really helps.

As the author, what should we be doing?
- TE: Get the novel best you can, research markets, check guidelines to see if it’ll be a good fit; write other stuff while waiting on response. You can always read the guidelines of the publisher but also read what they’re publishing. Know what you’re going for. Check the bookshelves in the library and the bookstores.
- MM: Start the 2nd book right away because if you sit and wait and stare at your e-mail, you’re just wasting time. These books don’t write themselves. Keep moving, keep writing. Novels. Short stories. Work on *something*. Momentum is hard to regain once you let it die.
- JH: Took the self-publishing route after trial and error. When he finished his first novel, he tried the “submit to agents” route, then realized he had no idea how to craft a query letter or who to submit to. Spent a year submitting poetry and lit fiction to small presses. Learned the process. Didn’t make much money. Self-published first, and then started learning by fire the self-publishing route. Went through self-publishing process on a much smaller scale, then realized he couldn’t categorize his first novel. So he hired an editor, formatted and reformatted the book for print and e-publishing. Was not an immediate success. Now he has a publisher for his books.

For the editors in the panel, did their experience change anything?
- GR: No, because he started as an author. Started making all the mistakes generally made on the writer’s side. Didn’t have experience to draw some. Didn’t have beta-readers; that was a big mistake. Did Orson Scott Card’s boot camp. Started writing short stories when he was really young. Gave up for a little while, and came back to it later. DON’T give it up, or you’ll have to re-learn. Wrote a few more short stories then went to the novel.
- ES: Also was a writer first; also did Orson Scott Card’s boot camp. Realized he had so much to do. His beta group was great but everyone was interested but not experienced. He wrote novels before transitioning to short stories. Turned to short stories to learn his craft. Then went back to the novel feeling more competent.

Should we be writing shorrt fiction first?
- JH: Wrote a lot of articles for the poker industry. Didn’t write short fiction until he started self-pubbing novels and needed something to fill in the holes between self-pubbing his novels. Quick turnaround time. Quit his day job.
- MM: Writing a short story is easy. Started writing short stories. Also, instant gratification from short stories. Novels take a bit longer. FH encouraged her to write novel-length.
- TE: Short stories are great, but writing fantasy/sci-fi shorts is a challenge because you also have world-building, too.
- ES: It is possible to write a novel full of short stories – a cluster of standalone short stories that has an overarching arc or links, but would take more time and effort to write this than to write a novel.
- DBC: Still, this isn’t something he’d recommend to beginners.

About queries:
- ES: Query-writing is a science. Getting a rejection doesn’t mean that your book sucks, it means that your query letter sucks.

About agents:
- Most authors agreed that it was important to find an agent first, but only one had an agent at the time of this panel.
- Publishing is a hurry-up-and-wait game.
- One author went though a small publisher.
- One author: Had an agent who sold the author's first book. Signed with that agent because the agent had the connections in New York. You need someone enthusiastic who’ll believe in your work. But then as time went on, the author realized the agent wasn’t doing much to help, and didn’t even look at the second book before passing it onto the publisher. The author currently looking for a new agent.

About editors:
- DBC: Editors can be friends. The average writer will go through several editor relationships. An agent author relationship is a marriage. Ending it is like a divorce. The relationship is complex; there should be rapport. There should be support. They should be there for you.

How long does it take to publish a book?
- JH: finishes a novel-length Jan 1, hired a good freelance editor. Sent it off. Gets it back from editors and proofreaders by the end of February. Meanwhile has consulted with cover artists. By March 1 is ready to sell/upload. Meanwhile sold the contracts to re-release older works to small pub last August, and the books should be ready to go this August.
- DBC: Handed in Thieftaker on time Feb 1, 2010, will be published July 3rd, 2012. And it didn’t need that much rewriting. Tor is notoriously slow. Editor is glacially slow in the context of Tor editors.
- GR: The process of creating cover art, releasing arcs for review, is 6 months to a year. Publishing schedule is 18 months to 2 yrs. Lots of BAEN authors are very prolific. As far as what you can expect, if you submit a novel today, you’ll get a response in nine months. Don’t expect exclusivity. Appreciates being notified if the novel has been picked up elsewhere. If he likes the start of the book and sets it aside, it’ll take much more time for him to look at. Then if he really likes it he’ll submit it to his boss (chief editor), and then that will take more time.
- ES: Remember, there are a lot of little steps in the process. You want the publisher sending out review copies. The reviewers want the books 3-4 times prior to being published, too, and you want it reviewed, because good reviews drive sales.
- DBC: Got blurbs by sending out manuscript to authors, which adds a few more months (but this is also very important)
- TE: Smaller press means smaller pub schedule. Depends on blurbs, reviews, etc.
- JH: There are many of self-published authors who sell tons of copies.

Social media before submitting?
- DBC: Social media is a great way to market a book that is already most of the way through the publishing process. But it takes up more time that you should spend revising a novel, and you should focus your energy on writing.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Kidnapping Your Muse (ConCarolinas 2012 Writing Panel Notes)

"Let me go, plz ;__;" - Charlie is sprawled diagonally in a box that stands upright, with its opening at the top. He clutches the edges, trying to pull himself out. For the record, he got himself in there. © Laura Sheana Taylor, 2012.

Back again, finally. Sorry for the delay, folks. Canada Day fell on a Sunday, so our statutory holiday was Monday ... and, well, not much sleep was had that night. Let alone posting. My rhythm, it was interrupted.

This next panel, "Kidnapping Your Muse", was technically called "Part One", but I never did make it to Part Two (which featured different authors). But this was pretty good. It was about writer's block (if you so choose to acknowlege it), overcoming simply being stuck, and how to keep the inspiration flowing.The responses were very insightful into process!

Again we had a round-table sort of discussion going, so here's what I transcribed.

* * *

Authors: David B. Coe, Crymsyn Hart, Misty Massey, Allen Wold, Faith Hunter 
Moderator: A.J. Hartley

AW – Does writers workshops, teaches
MM – Fantasy writer, Mad Kestrel, pirate magic adventure, on the Magical Words team, MW book
FH – Jane Yellowrock series, on the Magical Words team
DBC – Now also writing as D.B. Jackson – Thieftaker, on the Magical Words team
CH – Paranormal erotic e-romance

What to do when the book we’re writing doesn’t want to be written – inspiration, and more specifically, what to do when it dries up

What do you think about Writer's Block?
AW – gets blocked when his story takes a left hand turn and goes off in the wrong direction, that can be discouraging – when he lets a character down, when he pushes them down a wrong path or make a wrong decision rather than what they want to do – that’s why he’s often stopped writing. So he has to go back and find that place and where he’s supposed to go and then he can continue with the story.

MM – hates the term writer’s block. Two types – 1. The temporary, where she’s stuck at the computer and the words aren’t flowing – gets up and moves, walks around her house; dances; that; 2. Emotional issues in her real life that stand in the way of her being creative – she calls friends and seeks solace, or turns to something completely different from what she’s working on, for forward motion.

FH – Instead of not allowing a character enough freedom, she gives the character too much freedom and they do something stupid. Has to back off, put the words elsewhere, and make the character do what she promised to do in the outline. Also, can’t write when house is dirty; has to houseclean to get work done

DBC – Doesn’t believe writer’s block exists – that term presupposes writing is easy, is supposed to flow, everything should go smoothly from beginning to end – Writing is hard. There are fits and starts and stumbles. That’s writing. This is a hard process. Block is just the wrong word for it.

FH – It’s a creative process.

CH – When creative process stops or dayjob gets in the way, characters are screaming in the air to write them, there’s a spot she gets to that she has to write

AJ – Writing time is circumscribed. Very specific deadlines. Has to produce x words consistently in places to get it done. He’s not blocked, but he’s bored sometimes by sitting in the same place, etc. Has to get re-excited about the book again. Something about the term writer’s block  - it’s a legitimizing excuse for not working.

AW - It’s about not being able to move forward for some reason. There are several different varieties of reasons – You must be able to identify it and then you’ll get unstuck.


FH – does not deviate from outline. If she leaves outline, it gives her trouble. (She only outlines plot points, not how the character feels or reacts).

MM  - Used to be a pantser, let narrative carry her along – tried outlining and is now completely committed. If she’s not sure where to go, she looks at outline. She’ll occasionally deviate if it turns out in the narrative that it’s not a really good idea – She outlines the events, not the reactions.

AW – every book is different. Has written with and without outlines. "Outline" is like “block”; it means different things to different people. The more detailed, the less he can write.

AJ – Outline not written in stone – tells story as he imagines it at the start – discovers things about characters as he goes along – it’s a balance. He may not need the outline in the end, but it gives him faith that there is a story to be told that he can get to the end of. Occasionally he glances down to make sure it still working.

CH – Is a pantser. She just keeps going. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, and she writes something different.

DBC – Writing a 15 pg outline would be death. Each chapter gets 2 sentences. This is his creative process. It's like a bottle of soda – every time he opens it to talk about it, to outline it , it goes flat. He is sparing in what he does in prepping because that release of energy is his creative process. He re-outlines as he goes along if he needs to.

AJ – Does write a 15 page outline – very loose, and he writes from character perspective so that it reads like  a short story with lots of emotional colour with lots of specifics that are missing. He knows what has to happen in the next 70 pgs, but doesn’t know how it’s going to happen.

Outlines with novels vs. short sotries?

DBC, AW: don’t outline their short stories. The outline is the objective the character is trying to accomplish, whether he gets it or not. DBJ has no idea what’s going to happen, how it’s going to end. Writes with faith, treats it like an adventure. The characters tell him. Misty: outlines short stories. On paper.

AJ: However much outline he does, there will always be a point where he has to create a document, “What the hell is this book about”. What the core of the story is about. What the narrative arc is. This is after writing the story, though.

CH – Doesn’t outline anything, writes the outline in her head and not on paper.

Does the quality change whether you struggle in real life or don’t?

CH – Where your mind is is a big thing.

AJ – They tend to go together.. A miserable day in real life or writing is a miserable day. They're not separate. Writer's block is a sign that he’s lost faith in a story.

When you have a bad day, do you find refuge in your writing to turn your day around?

FH – Sometimes.

AW – If he has a bad day, he can’t write. Except when he gets a very very very nasty rejection.

MM – Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

FH – Writes well when upset if she can find a way to channel that energy.

What's one thing you do when you’re stuck that works for you?

FH: (You mean, other than drinking?)

DBC: Opens a separate file, talks about where the story needs to go. Also goes back and reads what he has so far (even if it’s the whole book), and takes notes.

AJ: Sometimes the act of re-reading gives you faith that it works.

CH: Steps away from the book.

AW: Goes back and sees where he made the mistake. If you can’t get much done, it’s time to stop and go back. 

MM: Moves – dances (exercises). Easiest way to jumpstart her brain. Stops reading what she is writing and looks at something else.

FH – Outlines in a web outline, starting with the main point in the centre, to try to pinpoint what's not working.

AJ – Walks, any time he runs into a part where he’s bored, struggling , or stuck. Doesn’t run. Energizes his body but keeps his brain free. Imagines conversations – the act often helps get the issue figured out.

MM – Does her best dancing when she stops talking to herself. It’s about disengaging the brain. Can think about writing because her body is doing stuff.

DBC – Can’t walk away. When faced with that thing that isn’t working, he pounds away at it until he figures it out.

AW – Ideas come clear to him when he first wakes up, because all of the critical aspects of thinking are eliminated.

AJ – Wrote a problem on a piece of paper and stuck it under his pillow before bed. It worked. Because he was aware of it.

Do you ever have moments of doubt even after completion of the novel?
DBC – Every novel at 60%, he has a serious crisis of faith. Everything sucks. Then he gets over it.

AJ – Neil Gaiman's 3 things : “Produce good work, on time, and be nice and easy to work with. If you have two of those, you can get away with the third.”

MM – Yes, we doubt. The night before her book came out, she thought of better ending.

AW – There’s always another book, another story to tell.

Can you read fiction when you’re writing fiction?

AW – No.

MM – Yes, reads all the time. Tries to save it for bedtime, like a treat for having written. Everybody’s different, though.

AJ – Yes, but things that are different from what he’s writing

DBC: Didn’t used read what he is writing, because he was afraid of similar voices creeping into his head. But at this point he does and he’s glad, and it took him awhile to be comforatable enough with his own writing.

CH: Doesn’t read romance because that’s what she writes.

If you’ve built your world for your novels, do you therefore stop reading in that genre to avoid lifiting ideas?

AJ – Yes, so he doesn’t subconsciously.

Monday, June 25, 2012

You Had Me at Hello: The Importance of the First Chapter (ConCarolinas 2012 Writing Panel Notes)

"Pixel Says Hi" Photo © Laura Sheana Taylor. No catnip was involved, I swear.

This set of notes was mostly a round table discussion. Because of how the chat flowed, I've kept it as is, and attributed speakers where possible.

* * *

 You Had Me at Hello
Panelists: Rachel A. Aaron, Jim S. Bernheimer, David B. Coe / D.B. Jackson, 
Gray Rinehart, Faith Hunter, Kalayna Price, Edmund Schubert
Moderator: James Maxey

The first chapter doesn’t have to get you excited if you know the author,  but that’s not usually the case.

By the end of the first chapter, you should have your reader completely hooked.

What’s important?

ES (editor of e-zine Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show): In short stories, first lines are more important, less time to get the attention of a reader. Especially first lines that don’t make sense on first read. Start with something on the surface that doesn’t make sense; that gets his attention.

GR (“Slushmaster General”, in charge of slushpile submissions at Baen Books): The advantage of a published book is that we can pick up the book and read the back of it. That advantage is not available when reading what’s being submitted to the slush pile. So to him, the voice in the opening really matters. Your first line is critical; the one after that almost as much. Same with the first paragraph, the first page, the first chapter. Customers often make the decision to buy based on the first page or two.

RA: The primary purpose of the first line is to get the reader to read the second line. To get them to read the rest of the story. Through voice, odd first line, other ways. She gives a writer three sentences – downloads the Kindle first chapter. Then makes her decision whether to read/buy based on that.

JB: Don’t give weather reports. Don’t have a long build up , a slow burn, a meandering prologue. Give it a running start. The reader will catch up as the character does. Give the reader something about the character that they want to know, they want to find out, so they’ll keep reading. Create interest in the character.

DBC: Don’t give it a cinematic start, where you zoom down onto the scene omnisciently. Omniscient is not a good voice; editors frown on it. Establish the voice and the character. Start in someone’s point of view. That’s what matters. E.g. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: two scenes in quick succession (a bank heist, a poker game). At the end of those two scenes, you have an idea of exactly how the two characters will play out.

FH: Don’t open with wakeup, bad news. Start in media res. Find a beginning that grabs voice, character, point of view, setting, and tone, and go with it.

KP:  In your first chapter, something major has to change. The inciting incident should happen by the end of the first chapter.

DBC: Disagrees – establish something with the character and do something to get the story started. You don’t necessarily have to introduce the major conflict.

FH: Yes you do.

GR: Doesn’t have to be the *main* conflict, but something that tells us everything we need to know.

ES: Yes, Indiana Jones does this – the first scene has nothing to do with the conflict, but it sets up his character.

What else?

Be prepared to change your opening:
- You may need to backtrack, may need to introduce character and narrative correctly (balance it)
- When you finish your book, look at that first chapter again.  Be able to go back and look at it again.
- There’s always more than one way to do a scene. Do not be afraid to throw away good words for great words.

RA: At the start of Avengers, there’s two throwaway minutes of Loki doing bad stuff. Then he doesn’t have to go back and show why he’s doing bad stuff.

KP: Starts with a stranger, snarky opening (has been asked to tone it down some)

ES: To work with a story, it’s not so much rewriting as it is restructuring or tightening. It must be really close and he really wants to publish it – he takes great raw material and polishes it. He respects that it’s the writer’s story, not his.

GR: Sometimes you need to restructure the novel to tell a better story.

RA: Best writing came from a blog about writing for comics – Is this moment you’re starting with the most interesting moment in your character’s life? If not, why not? Start with the moment the boulder starts rolling down the hill, when everything’s supposed to start going wrong.

KP: Establish character, establish voice – make it interesting and snappy, establish the tone of the novel.

JB: Bangs out first chapter right away because it’ll be the part he’ll spend most time on, but he won’t know the first word until the last word is written. BUT he dresses first chapter like it’s going out on a date (in revisions). Not much room to slack off in the frist chapter. Entire book should also be treated well

You have a contract with reader in the first chapter – you show that you know how to write, that it’s worth reading, that it’s clear and not confusing and intriguing (doesn’t give it all away)

DBC: Slightly disagrees – Will spend as much time on the first paragraph as he will on the entire rest of the first chapter as he’ll spend on the next four or five chapters. However, this can lead to winding up hating them because those chapters are overworked and not necessarily as flowing. Not that the first chapter shouldn’t be polished, just that you shouldn’t obsess about it too much. There’s a balance between refining it to the point of it shines and editing it too much.

JB: Works on a lot of anthologies. He puts the best story in the second or third slot, and the second-best story in the last slot.

RA: You won’t know the right way to start the book until after you’ve written it. Even if you have to rewrite it five times. You learn as you go.

JB: Each book is a puzzle, has a “right” way of telling it. You won’t know until you start. What works for one book probably won’t apply to the next book. Don’t stress out about the beginning. The last line of the book is where the editor decies whether or not to buy the book. Make sure you get a good story with a good ending because the entire book. Don’t put all of your egs in that one book

RA: Don’t strive for perfection. If you strive to make it perfect,  you’ll be unhappy. Just learn to say when good enough is good enough. We have so many books in us and it’s stupid to waste time.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The First Step (Concarlinas 2012 Writing Panel Notes)

Aaaand we're back with notes from this year's ConCarolinas. Rather than push myself to release ALL THE NOTES at once, and for the sake of my sanity, I'll be posting these once a week (on Mondays) for the next twelve weeks or so. Hope that's all right with everyone. (If not, um, well, sorry, that's the way it's going to be.)

The first panel of this year's convention? Vital info for beginners, and important reminders for the not-so-newbies.

* * *

The First Step
Panelists: William Hartfeld, Allen Wold, Carrie Ryan, James R. Tuck
Moderator: Stuart Jaffe

On Ego:
WH: You need a healthy ego, but you also need to be able to ask for and accept criticism.
SJ: You need an ego to write it, but you need to check your ego at the door to revise it.
CR: Be an “Insecure Egomaniac”.

Round table: General tips
- Don’t just look for external validation.
- Be stubborn.
- Be able to deal with rejection. A LOT of it. Even after you’ve sold and published.
- You MUST have a thick skin.
- You must have more than one book in you, be aware of being able to let things go if they’re not working and move onto the next thing.
- Revise. Everything. Ask yourself: “Is this scene working?”
- Read everything out loud.
- Have perseverance.
- Research first, too. Hours and hours of it.
- Stick through it, even when you feel like quitting
- You must also be disciplined. TV, Facebook, and social media in general are all ways to be distracted, excuses not to write. You must say to yourself, “At 9:00,” (for example), “this is writing time. No Facebook. No TV.” (etc)

Recommended writing books:
- Thanks, but this isn’t for us – Jessica Page Morelle
- How Not to Write a Novel – Howard Mittelmark
- Story – Robert McKee
- Save the Cat – Blake Snyder (a book on screenwriting, but still *very* useful)
- The Hero with a Thousand Faces – Joseph Campbell
- The Hero's 2 Journeys (video) – Vogler & Hague

When reading these books, keep in mind:
- You learn after a while which books are worth reading.
- So much info, especially when you’re starting out, that you won’t review
- Books by authors about how they write
- Work out your own system. No matter what anyone tells you to do, you must find your own way.
- Loosely apply books on screenwriting to your work.
- Don’t necessarily read them cover to cover, just bits and pieces as needed.
- Sometimes even the most basic book or blog post will trigger your brain, give  you a nugget.

Remember to read:
- Read as many of the books in your genre that you like, and write what you read, and learn to tell what each author did poorly or well.
- Often finishing a good book can give you energy and inspiration for your next book.
- Read other books. You internalize what you read. And if you don’t read your genre, you fall prey to tropes and clichés.
- Reading is so important. It never ends.
- Reading is part of your job. Don’t feel guilty taking time to read provided you’re meeting your deadlines.
- Read your genre. Then read widely, expose yourself other stuff.
- Find something that’s related to what you’re writing, to ease yourself into that other genre. You might also find you like those other genres, too. Then branch out from there. These books will add to your internal monologue. But if you hate it, don’t force yourself.
- Don’t be afraid to be judgemental if you pick up a “classic” and think it’s crap, or don’t like it.
- Read poetry, too.

- There are no rules. But be aware of the guidelines so you know which you’re following and which you’re not. i.e. don’t write an 800,000-word novel.
- Bear in mind, the rules change. Headhopping used to be the norm.
Be aware – if one book did something successfully doesn’t mean that you should experiment in.
Must read current books to see what the market is like.
- Have a critique group.
- What "beta group" means: The writer is the alpha, the readers are the betas.

- The value of a critique group isn’t just in getting feedback, it’s in giving feedback. When you critique other stuff, you notice their mistakes and can apply it to your own work.
- Actually, there are 6 rules: Read Read Read, Write Write Write.

- Don’t assume you don’t need editing.
- Be aware it takes a long time, no matter what path you take.
- Get on with it: finish the book. It’s okay to suck. Don’t worry about making it pretty, just get it done and we’ll fix it later. Get it on paper first. Can’t write a second draft without the first. “Can’t fix a blank page.” Also, “The Muse is a Fickle Bitch.” Don’t wait for the muse.
- Be okay with your writing process.
- Don’t spend so much time building your online presence to the point where you don’t get any writing done.
- Be able to recognize bad critiques.
- Be able to develop a desire to be an editor.
- Even crappy critiques can really help. Be able to put them in perspective.

Important Miscellanea:
- Re: self-publishing: It may be faster to get your stuff out, but it takes just as long to get it sold, and still takes many drafts.
- If self-publishing, understand that you have two completely different jobs, being a writer and being a publisher. Be a writer first. Learn that first.
- Collaborations: different systems depending on who you’re working with and how you work it out. Learn to write first, though, so you don’t drown each other out. Be able to trust the person so if you dispute, figure out how it’s resolved. If you both disagree, chances are you’re both wrong. There’s a third path. And have a written collaboration agreement to start with.
- Remember: You’re not Heinlein, and when you're reading his stuff, what you’re reading is his LAST draft. Nothing like his first draft. Neither will
- Perseverance: Don’t rewrite except to editorial direction (Heinlein’s 3rd law) – unless you think a critique is valid, don’t change something that’s good unless you already have an editor telling you to change it.

- Don’t quit your day job. This isn't a get-rich-quick lifestyle by any stretch of the imagination.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Nothing is Sacred

"Charlie Wants to Go, Too" - Cat sits in suitcase, ready to be packed. Photo © Laura Sheana Taylor.
Quick aside: Later this week I'm headed cross-continent to ConCarolinas again, which from its schedule looks to have many awesome offerings as far as writing panels go. My passport is valid this time, so getting there should be less of an issue this year. I shall return with more notes! And happy memories of seeing many of my Magical Words friends and mentors, of course. I'm sooo excited right now!


Now, onto the rest of the post.
* * *

So I've been revising. Still. Bit by bit, honestly. I'm going slowly partly because I want to be sure I properly address the issues that I've realized must be addressed, and partly because I keep learning new ways to make the story stronger. (In particular, I'm enjoying Faith Hunter's "Top Ten (Okay Eleven) Things You Should Know About Your Own Book" series. Such a wealth of information that has changed my story for the better.)

And since I've been revising seriously since the end of October (NaNoWriMo excepted), one truth keeps coming back to me.

Nothing is sacred.

I'm serious. I think I've hinted at this before, but I'm going to say it again, here, just to make the lesson clear: when it comes to revising, nothing is sacred. Nothing escapes the chopping block if it needs to go.

It's easy to get attached to a certain turn of phrase, a style that seems important, a particular course of events. It's even easier to assume during revisions that these things are SET IN STONE. They can't be changed! It has to be like that, right?


The only thing that *is* sacred is the story's soul. Its heartsong. The essence that makes it the story it is. All else is negotiable. Characters, writing style, events, you name it—they don't *have* to be there. Or if they do, they don't have to be exactly as you originally imagined them.

I'm not gonna lie here: chances are, your beautiful shiny manuscript bubble will be popped, repeatedly, by well-meaning beta-readers. Usually they'll have excellent feedback. Often they'll suggest changes that make sense. They may seem like big changes. You may get frustrated. You may want to scream and rage (hopefully privately) about the feedback that rankles you. Sure, get angry. I sometimes do (privately. only privately, people).  I've heard revisions compared to the Five Stages of Grief, and rightly so.

Perhaps this post isn't very helpful, except to let you know that if you're frustrated with rewrites, you're not alone. But for me, at least, realizing that I can tell a better story if I let go and open myself up to the possibilities before me has made this stage easier to deal with. Even if, at first, it really doesn't seem like it.

Take a deep breath. It's going to be okay. Sure, it's frustrating. But if it makes for a stronger story, then isn't it worth it?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Master Class: Impossible to Put Down: Mastering the Three Levels of Story (SIWC 2011 notes)

 Last but not least, the final set of notes from the 2011 Surrey International Writer's Conference.

At this point, I'm going to add the obvious disclaimer: these notes are what *I* came away from the workshop with. They are in *no* way a substitute for the real class; you had to have been there, and being there was *so* worth it. Donald Maass is a fantastic teacher and I can't say enough about how much SIWC has done for me. That being said, this was a three-hour workshop in which I took a LOT of notes, so this is a longer-than-usual post. Enjoy!

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Impossible to Put Down: Mastering the Three Levels of Story
Donald Maass

Getting published for the first time today is no more difficult than it was years ago.

But our stories need to be bigger, deeper, stronger.

Stories have inside them an iron skeleton, the essential conflict, the large problem around which the novel is built.

With that iron skeleton, the book won’t collapse.

Scene structure: scenes need to do something. There’s a goal in each scene that is either met or not. Strong scenes carry story forward.

Fiction that keeps us enthralled works on three different levels at once: the macroplot, the scene structure, and the line-by-line tension. A throbbing beat that keeps us dancing/reading, enthralled.

The First Level of Storytelling: Macro-Structure

Often Under-developed:
-    The premise – When powerfully constructed, will demand that there will be a complex and multifold story that carries everything forward.
-    The middles are woefully malnourished. – Not enough happening.
-    The setting

Whatever story you’re working on, whatever it is, think of the main protagonist of your story. What is the tough problem that your protagonist has to solve?

What would make this problem not just tough to solve, but impossible to solve? What is so enormous, so disastrous, so unsolvable that at the end your protagonist would actually fail?

What if this problem happened right away? What if the problem were impossible to solve from the outset? What if the conditions of the story were so that this was impossible for the character to fix it?
-    Coming of age: is the person in power moveable?
-    Plot driven story: when the big disaster happens – how close to the disaster can you put the opening of the story? How inevitable can you make the disaster, when there is no way to stop it?
-    Romance – all the reasons they can’t be together
-    Murder Mystery – impossible to catch the killer
-    What if you started that way?
-    Irresolvable conflict. Problems that cannot be solved. Conflicts with no solution.

Take all the characters in your story, and put them into two parties/camps. One is pro-protagonist, one is anti-protagonist.
-    What kind of history do they have? What will put them at war forever? What kind of injustice was done?
-    What grief or grievance can be so deep that it lasts for generations?
-    Those who work for your protagonist and those who work against them
-    Can you create a hatred between those who are on the side of your protagonist, and those who are not?
-    What could the protagonist have done that is unforgivable? OR, what grievance does the protagonist have that is fundamental to how they look at life? What is the ONE thing they will not stand for, that the other side has done?

The world of your story itself: What kind of world is it set in? What time/place/setting? The world of your story. People in ANY world are driven by ideas. They hold ideas dear. What are two opposing, conflicting, irreconcilable principles or ideas present in your story? What do people stand for, and how are some of those ideas in powerful conflict with each other? Tensions they can’t escape because they are where they are and in the time they find themselves? What two ideas are in conflict?
-    E.g. the Occupy meetings: being angry
-    They don’t make demands, because they hate the entire system.
-    Who’s powerfully against something? How is each camp right? Even the Germans had grievances in the 1930’s.
-    Who in the story stands solidly on each side? Who will not be moved? Who is a true believer? Who knows that they’re right? Who *is* right?
-    When you build in an irresolvable conflict, you have the premises for a lot of story.

What’s the worst thing that happens to your protagonist currently in the story? What’s the biggest setback?
-    Every bad thing that happens has a personal cost, does damage, takes something out of the character. What’s the cost to the protagonist? What does the protagonist lose?
-    Even just “belief that the world is good” or “assurance that things will turn out okay”
-    Something that gets shot to bits when bad things happen.
-    Your protagonist has therfore somehow become unhappy. What’s made them unhappy? Can you make it in some way the foundation, the very core of your protagonist’s happiness in life, that they lose?
-    What one, two or three ways can what is lost become the most important thing for your protagonist?
-    Lost: The affection of a family member? These two characters mattered to each other. How could they matter more? What is the airtight, unbreakable bond between them? What did one do for the other that could never be forgotten?
-    Lost: Piece of self/soul? Can it become a treasure, the deepest part of the character’s identity? The one part of them that will never change? What can be lost when things go wrong?
-    Have it cost the protagonist everything.
-    Need to build up whatever will be lost.
-    The terrible thing that happens: what’s the worst way that it can happen? What will twist the knife in deeper? How can it be even more devastating? Who can it affect? What’s the worst possible time for it to happen? The most public, the most humiliating, the most downright evil time/place this could happen? How can you compound this event? Can  you bring it closer to other terrible events?
-    “You like your protagonist, right? Get over that.”
-    Betrayals: Who can betray your character in the story? Are you resisting that idea? Yes, you want to do it. Who is the worst person, the one who your character thinks will never betray them? How can they betray them in the worst way?
-    Give yourself time to work out and plant the seeds of betrayal earlier in the story, so that your the reader doesn’t see it coming. Come up with three reasons why this character would betray the protagonist. How craftily can you disguise this so that when the betrayal itself happens the reader goes “Oh, of course” and the penny drops.

What’s your protagonist’s worst mistake/goof-up? Have another character for whom this mistake is unforgivable.
-    For whom would this be the breaking point, the thing that cannot be tolerated? What relationship will be broken?
-    Now you have more groundwork to lay for the middle of your book.

Is there a love in your novel that is forbidden? Or is there some way, some pair of people who love each other when they shouldn’t? Make that love impossible if you can. Not just forbidden, but impossible. What does that mean? Write it down and make it happen.

Kill someone. Whom can you kill that is not already dead? There is always room for more death. Who can die? Once you’ve picked that character, work backwards. How can you make this character more beloved, wise, warm, sweet, generous? What kind of spirit does this character bring to the world that others see and feel? What’s the best thing this character does before you kill them?

What death/disaster/misfortune has boxed your character in for life? What haunts your protagonist, has a grip on them? Write down 2-3 reasons why it’s impossible for your character to let that go, get over it. What makes that injury more personal, more inescapable, more excruciating? What keeps them up at night and makes them lose sleep? What thought will not go away for your protagonist at 2 am?

Or is there somebody else that could be cast under a spell? Why is that spell in place? Why will it never be broken? What is it about that spell? How can it be broken? Who carries a grudge? Why can’t they forget a past wrong? Can you make them a central character, impossible to avoid dealing with?

Or is their something wrong in the world, something broken, something dark and evil, something that’s cast a pall over everybody? Write it down. When you have, write down the names of more people who can be sucked into the vortex, who can be affected and particularly how. Get specific about who and how. Then write down the names of several additional characters and the ways that they, too, will be affected by the darkness in the heart of your story.

So, you’ve done some lousy things to your protagonist. Of all of the bad things you’ve come up with in the last 45 minutes or so, what’s the one thing you haven’t thought of yet? What atomic bomb can you throw on your protagonist or blows them off the map, what unimaginable thing, what mindfuck can you throw at them? Something your protagonist hasn’t seen coming. What is it? If you feel bad about doing this to your protagonist, remember: Your protagonist is not real. Ultimately it’s going to come out okay (maybe)

Regardless of what you’re writing, what is it that your character wants to become? What do they aspire to? What is unfinished, undone? What gets in the way? Now, what else can get in the way?
Janni: wants to be a healer, not a queen falls in love with Brennant

Then, write down what they’re going to do when they find out that they’re not going to become the person they want to be. What relationships change? What goals change?

The story’s going somewhere. Close down that road. Close it off. They can’t get where they’re trying to go, period. When does your protagonist want to explode, lose it, freak out, say what’s really on their mind, does what they really want to do? Rant and rage and tell the truth to somebody’s face? What does this mean for your protagonist?
1.    What are the consequences?
2.    How do you set up the explosion?

Somewhere in the story does your character face a terrible choice, a moral dilemma?
-    Moral choice: choice between two wrongs, or two rights
-    Something has to be lost either way.
-    If you don’t have this, can you invent that choice?
-    How can you box in your protagonist, make the choice more important?
-    How can you make the consequences even bigger? Devastating to someone?
-    How can you force the choice on your protagonist? Who’s going to force them into it and how is time going to force them into it?

Imagine someone writing a story like yours, same plot, same themes. Imagine there’s a more fearless writer than you. What would this writer do with your story? What truth, what turn, what emotionally-charged event isn’t in that story yet? Write it down, because it’s going in that story now.

The big, important parts of the story, that drive the story, that have the consequences, are the foundations of the premise – now you have a story that demands that things occur.

No one expects that you’ll come to this conference with a manuscript that’s not going to change. Else what are you doing here?

The Second Level of Storytelling: The Scene

Shift focus now: to the scene.

Most novels are built of scenes. Scenes are the most powerful units. Discrete units of time when something happens.
-    Unskilled writers will write scenes sequentially.
-    It’s possible to create passages that carry the protagonists that transition the story well.

Start at a particular moment, end at a particular moment; between those two points is the scene.
Typically one point of view character.
Start somewhere, end somewhere, something happens.

Pick a scene from the middle of your novel that sucks.
-    Is there a travel scene where not much happens?
-    Is there an interview scene not very much happens?
-    Traditional fantasy: is there a stage of the journey that you wonder whether or not it should be there?
-    That blah scene that’s been there since the first draft that you’re not that sure about

Think about that scene. What circumstances actually change? What’s different at the end than was true at the beginning? A cliffhanger? Something physical? What has shifted? You wrote it because there was something you were trying to get there. What changes in that scene? Even if it’s something intangible, like a sense of progress or an understanding of self, of someone else?

Write down the precise second in that scene when the change occurs. What is it that we can see that actually shifts things for your POV character? What new information arrives? What new perception arrives? When is their insight, understanding, fear, new worry? When does the bell go ding? What is that marking event? If we could not hear their thoughts, if we could not know what they think or feel, if an objective observer was watching a videotape of that scene and could point out where things turn/go wrong/change, this is the turning point in the scene. The reason the scene is here.

So let’s fix that moment and start to do some things with it. The event, the objective thing that anyone could see or hear, how can it be made stronger, more dramatic? How can you make this turning point more unmissable?

Now imagine that there’s a chronometer running. Stop that videotape at that point and wind it back ten minutes. Now, write how this character sees themself. Who are they right now? How are things with them? What’s going on with them? What is their self-perception ten minutes before this scene happens?

If you’re stuck: write down what this character doesn’t want to tell anyone right now. What’s the thing this character would most like to fix? What is the character proud of, satisfied with about themselves? Specifically, how? In what way? Write down the one-word descriptor that your character would say to sum themselves up. Survivor? Loser? Healer?

Take the self-perception of your character 10 minutes before. Now wind the tape 10 minutes after. Ask them the same question: who are they? How do they see themself? How are they, right now, after that turning point? What has changed?

Is there a difference in self-perception for your character? What’s the inner turning point? What not just changes, but your character changes, is now different in some way?

When a scene both changes and changes the point of view character, that’s dynamic movement. It moves the character a step along in their journey/character arc/character transformation. What we’re getting at is why this scene is really here. If you can bring onto the page both the change (and make it clear) and how the character is also transforming in the course of the scene, then you have a scene that is necessary to the story, that doesn’t need to be cut, that is doing more work than before.

Scene structure: one of the most common ways in which we hear things discussed: the POV character wants something/has a goal. At this moment in time (at the scene’s start), what is your POV characer hoping for (or hoping to avoid) What do they wish will happen now, is afraid will happen now? “If I do nothing in the next [whatever the duration of the scene is], I will become/discover __”. New info & questions are good. What is your character seeking right now? What does the character want to feel? What is the goal?

Now write down three things that will suggest to the reader that the character’s wish will come about or not come about. Then write down the opposite: what’s actually going to occur.

Now, how much else can you eliminate from the scene? (4 pgs = good, 6-7 pgs is average length) Does your scene go for too long? Can you cut everything else, and pare it down to the essentials that happen? Extreme, but what if you did? A lot of what you have on those extra pages is not that essential stuff.

Basically, what a scene does to move along can be done in a fairly tight space. There is not much that is needed. Everything good that we can add to this scene is diluting the scene (atmosphere, dialogue, a clear beginning and end), but we don’t need as much.

Set the scene and bring it alive.

Flat description, even when it’s good and involves the 5 senses, can often be skipped. Readers skim those parts.

What they don’t skip is where it is set. The physical location, the time of day/year, etc. Where and when is  your scene set?

Take a look around the environment, the room, the place, and write down 3 details only your POV character would notice, that everyone else would miss.

Now write down something else: At the outset of the scene, as your charater arrives (unless you’re crafty enough to not let your character arrive) – AS THE SCENE BEGINS, take a moment to let your character soak in the environment. The place itself, minus the people. How does the place itself make this character feel right now?

How does the color of the place, the quality of the light, the shape of the place, make your character feel? Do they like it or not? Is there a conflicted answer? Is it possible that at the end of the scene, your character can feel the opposite? If not, how can they feel differently about the place (not the people, but the place)?

Write a passage conveying the sense of this place from the POV of this character.

This isn’t about setting. It’s about how the scene comes alive in the writer’s imagination. Flat description doesn’t quite work. Even descriptiveness can have a dynamic, evolving effect for the reader. You can do that even with a place. Description never has to be flat; it can be lively, create tension on the page. Explore the POV character’s perception of things and how this character experiences this place. 

Dialogue in the Scene

Imagine the most essential piece of dialogue that needs to be in the scene. With just quotation marks, no more than six or seven words per dialogue. No attibutives or incidental action, the dialogue snapping back (rattatatt dialogue).

Now this lean dialogue: is it doing the job? Is it getting the information accross, the essential exchange between the two characters? Do you really need the attributives, the twirl-the-pen action? Very often, you don’t. In fact, very often you need fewer words spoken than you might think. Very often in weak scenes, the dialogue is a mess, buried in non-dialogue.

Dialogue can do a lot of work, can move a scene along rapidly and efficiently, be a powerful tool if you need it to be.

Here’s how to work on it: take out everything you don’t need. Take a passage of exposition, thoughts and feelings, turn it into dialogue. Take it out of the character’s head.

Write a single sentence that summarizes what happens in this scene.

If in an outline, write it in the present tense. If in the present tense, write in the presnt tense, in the past then write in the past – summarize this scene in the same tense you write it in.

In the actual manuscript, could you subsitute the sentence you just wrote for the scene? If you can,  your scene isn’t doing enough yet. If it’s really that blah, sometimes you can just cut it and summarize it or make it a transition. Sometimes when we’re having trouble with a scene, we just don’t need it. If too much else is going on in that scene, then yay! You have a functional scene.

Sometimes, revision means revolution.

The Third Level of Storytelling: Microtension

Line-by-line tension. What makes the book a page-turner. What makes it impossible to put down because we’re reading everything.

Doesn’t work every time in every line on every page, but can be useful to put it into

Quiet tension, simmering tension, under-the-surface tension

Principles to keep in mind:
-    In dialogue: how can  you make the two speakers more hostile to each other, even if they’re friends and on the same team? How can you ratchet up the friction, the uneasiness, the hostility, the worry, even if they love each other? Once you’ve decided what at this moment has these two in conflict with each other, push it up another degree: how can that tension/hostility/worry/anger/need/resistance get into what they’re saying to each other? How can we feel it through the way they’re using the words they’re speaking to each other?
-    Try rewriting that ratattatt dialogue as an exchange of insults. There is no exchange of dialogue that cannot become more insulting. Insults are the easiest way to get friction going with each other. Have you ever been snide with a good friend of each other? If it’s out of character, well, it’s in character now. There’s friction in how they’re talking to each other. Not from the incidental action or the adjectives. Have the characters take things more personally. The same thing is being said, not violating or adding anything new to the characters, but we’re adding tension. Make the reader unsure of what’s going to happen, the next thing on the page.
-    What is one piece of action that occurs in this blah scene? Some kind of action in this scene if it’s worth keeping. Look at this action: write out the action, as it’s going to occur. It doesn’t need to be big or dramatic, it could be as simple as walking across the room – something physical we can see happening, moving.
-    How can we add more tension to this action?
-    Tension is what creates uncertainty/uneasiness/discomfort/a question/mild apprehension/off-balance in the mind of the reader. What creates tension? What makes the reader want to know what happens next?
-    All that has to happen is the movement. Add tension words to the movement, but even that doesn’t help. The action itself, whatever it is, does not create tension, nor does ramping up the action or the descriptor words. BUT, what does the POV character feel about that action? What does the character think? Can you have a reversal, create a shift in the thinking, a disconnect, a change, a contradiction to what the POV character felt before? Create dissonance in the mind of the reader. That dissonance is the uncertainty in the mind of the reader, and the reader reads it so fast and feels it before they can articulate it and are on the next thing on the page. There is a conflict that needs resolution. Only way to get it? Read the next thing on the page.
-    Thoughts and feelings on the page don’t necessarily create tension. Restating the obvious doesnt make it richer. It only turns it over again.
-    Exposition creates tension when it creates conflicting feelings at war with each other.
-    Pick up an old favorite novel, or something you haven’t read yet, and read it with an eye to how the author’s creating tension. Pay attention to where you read avidly, where you skip, etc. Where you read is not guns, glamour, it’s the tension created between people and inside them that is what keeps the reader reading.
-    Trend: 3rd person is becoming more limited, seeing as the character does. Passages of authorial writing are becoming increasingly rare. Tension really resides in conflicting and contrasting emotion.
-    “guts twisted in regret” is primary emotion; “picked a rose and paid for it, knowing he would never give it to someone” is more subtle.

Tension exercise: Throw your manuscript in the air so it’s truly out of order, then put it in the drawer for two months, then re-read the random pages so there’s truly tension on every page.

“A Reliable Wife” – First chapter involves the character just standing on a train station platform. But the inner conflict, the tension, is what drives the character. “hardly a damn thing happens, but the book is so rife with tension”.

What drives your character? How can you build a character and story so rife with tension that it drives the reader?

These are the three levels of tension that make the novel engrossing, gripping, powerful.

Character development, character arcs. “The inner journey” later this conference. [Note from Laura: Unfortunately, I missed this class. I think I was occupied pitching SOTS to an agent.]

Lastly, 5 senses is a bit of an outdated recommendation: don’t just go for flat description. Go for dissonance and tension and not purple prose. Go for subtle. Create tension internally in the character.

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Donald Maass has a new book out very soon: Writing 21st Century Fiction (writing about the death of genre, or at least the death of genre thinking and that genre crutches will be thrown away, about the conjunction of literary fiction and commercial fiction, how the NYT bestseller list has changed yet again, about books that have been selling well for weeks and weeks on end and every one of them is published originally as literary fiction, and what is wrong with this picture? Because they marry the best of what commercial fiction does and the best of what literary fiction does. Each group has something the other group needs. He’s reframing “plot” for literary writers and “lovely writing” for genre writers/storytellers; about the marriage of great storytelling and beautiful writing).