Feed Your Imagination Regularly:

When my daughter, Amanda, was a tween, she asked for my advice on writing. I was on the road with my job, so I sent her the advice via email.  She’s grown now and pursuing her career and off on that wonderful adventure called life. This past weekend, I was going over my old computer files (and pictures from those days, because I miss her) and I came across my advice from the road. 

As I read over what I’d sent her, I realized it holds true today for her little brothers and sister as well as it had for her. For what it’s worth, here is a mother’s writing advice: 

 ***

Imagine. Exercise your imagination regularly by playing. Pretend to be someone from a TV show or movie with your friends. If you feel too old for that, shut yourself up in your bedroom and daydream. Wonder what it would be like to be someone else, then pretend you are that person. Wonder what it would be like to do something, then pretend you are doing it. Make up stories in your head and imagine how they would work out.

In your imagination, nothing is impossible. If you wonder what it would be like to have magical powers, then imagine you have them. Go through the day looking for situations in which to use them. How would they work? How would they make problems for you? How would you solve problems with them?

If you wonder what it would be like to live 100 years in the future, then imagine that you do. What would the world be like? How would your life be different? What kinds of problems would you have that you don’t face now? Where would you live? What would the you of the future think of the you of today?

Listen to how others tell stories or describe situations in every day conversations. Some of the best writing is just taking what we hear in conversation and transcribing it into something grammatically palatable.

Read. By reading, you will see firsthand how professionals describe ordinary scenes and actions. By emulating them, you can get a feel for the way words flow together. The more you read, the more familiar you will become with language. Read all kinds of books from different decades. See how writing has changed during the 20th century.

Write. The only way to learn to write is to sit down and do it. It doesn’t have to be good the first time. Even professionals must write and revise for hours… days… months… years even, before they are satisfied that they have expressed themselves adequately.

Rewrite movies, TV shows, and books. Write a story using characters and settings from a movie, or any story that captured your imagination. Add yourself as a character and take a course of action that changes the outcome of the story. Take characters from one movie or show and put them in the setting of another.

Experiment with the language. Don’t be afraid to string words together in new and unusual ways. Always be on the lookout for different ways to say the same thing. Instead of saying that someone works at a gas station, he can be a petroleum distribution specialist. A writer is a word merchant. A dog is a canine companion. A cat is a furry sidekick. Your best friend can be your partner in crime. Your mother is your maternal unit. Your father is your paternal unit.

***

This advice from the road still holds some truth. Your imagination is a muscle and you must exercise it regularly to keep it strong. 

How do YOU exercise your imagination? What advice would you have for Amanda’s now-tween brother?

I Didn’t See That Coming – Foreshadowing

I was very excited to find a blog post on foreshadowing this morning. Unfortunately, it didn’t really tell me anything about foreshadowing. It told me more about the author’s latest book. That’s all well and good, but I was put off. It felt like someone was pulling the old bait and switch on me. That makes me cranky. When I get cranky, I do something about it. So this morning, I wrote my own damn post on foreshadowing. So there.

On About.com Richard Nordquist defines foreshadowing thusly: The presentation of details, characters, or incidents in a narrative in such a way that later events are prepared for (or “shadowed forth”).

In short, it’s setting the stage for future events. Foreshadowing creates a mood. It sets up the audience for the main conflict and the climax, or the catalysts that bring about the climax. It’s a device mystery writers use to plant red herrings and lead the reader to the clues that solve the case. In horror, it’s used to create mood and warn audiences not to get too attached to that character because he or she will be the next victim. In romance, it provides the niggling little doubts as to whether or not the hero and heroine will end up together.

Most readers never consciously notice it. Executed properly, it is very subtle and paves the way for the emotional impact the writer seeks to evoke. Writing fiction is all about evoking emotion. I’ll go back and say it again. The first and greatest lesson I learned was that as a writer, if you’re not evoking emotion in your reader, you may as well be writing a cookbook. But then, even the best cookbooks evoke some kind of emotion these days.

I mention foreshadowing because I’m consciously using it in HERO’S END. 29543_322708094509389_1163963974_nThere’s a bit of a mystery going on and foreshadowing is a natural tool in mysteries. Foreshadowing isn’t all dark portents either. As a writer, if I’m going to use an object to save the day, or to slay the bad guy on page 180, I need to introduce the object around page 20 or so. If a fact is going to be the catalyst for an emotional scene, I need to allude to the fact early and repeat it a few times before it actually causes the issue. If the reader hasn’t built up the same emotional response as the character, when the character explodes in a ball of angst, it seems to have come out of left field. Or if one of your characters must die in keeping with the story line, you need to prepare the reader for it. Think red shirts.

Some writers call it back-writing. Once you’ve written the main story, you go back through and sprinkle the images, references, clues and allusions throughout the story, building up to the climax or event.

In SOVRAN’S PAWN, I used Blade’s sunshades, which interfaced with his IC data reader for a head’s up display. I introduced the shades with Blade when he met Bo. I introduced the interface in the following chapter. At the climax, the shades and their interface were vital for getting him where he needed to be. Without the mention of them earlier, it would have seemed like a Deus Ex Machina intervention and a cheap device.

I read a debut novel by an author of my acquaintance in which her main character does a complete about-face of personality at the climax. Unfortunately, there was no foreshadowing of this possibility, so when it happened, her readers rebelled. Because her book was published by an imprint of a large publishing house, there’s really no excuse. This is the kind of thing good editors and beta readers normally catch.

Never underestimate the value of foreshadowing or the subtlety of a skilled hand on the pen.

It’s The Little Things

Writing is a lonely business. I say that quite a bit. Mostly because it’s true. Writers are solitary creatures, often insulated against interacting with other people by the very nature of what we do. Writing takes time. It also takes quiet and, for most writers, a measure of solitude. So when writers get together, either online or in person, it’s a pretty big deal for all of us. We have human interaction (after a fashion) with others who understand this strange life we lead. We discuss things that don’t make much sense. We agonize over things that seem trivial. We also get feedback on our work, and exchange tips on how to do it more effectively.

In a recent post, I talked about the concepts of Scene and Sequel. I got a lot of great feedback on that post. But perhaps the feedback that meant the most came from my friend — and my daughter’s favorite author — Hana Haatainen Caye who regularly writes for iStorybooks (among other things.)

Hana has many irons in the fire at any given moment. She has a very successful blog The Green Grandma, in which she talks about living a more natural, organic life without chemicals. Her book Vinegar Fridays came from a regular feature on her blog about the many uses of vinegar in and around the home. Even now, Hana’s working on getting it ready for release as an e-book! She’s one of the busiest and most prolific writers I know.

Imagine my surprise when she messaged me about how much my post on scene and sequel had helped her improve her writing. After implementing it in her own work in progress with great success, Hana took the concept to her writer’s group. They dissected their own stories that night according to the key points of scene and sequel, and their assignment is to incorporate both into their stories over the next month.

It’s always meaningful to me to hear how the little things I write — whether it’s a blog post, a book review or a novel — have a positive impact on someone’s life. For a moment, that solitary life I lead seems a little less lonely. I’m touched that Hana took the time to tell me how she used what I’d written.

For a writer sitting in the dim light, huddled around the cold glow of a backlit computer screen, with only the whirring of the fan to break the silence, the comments, emails, and reviews are the only applause we get.  Sometimes, it’s the only way we know that we are not alone, and that what we do matters to someone other than ourselves. For those who take the time to tell us, we are eternally grateful.

You Too Can Write A Novel

The buzz for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is in full swing on the writer’s blogs and chat groups.  I’m torn about participating this year. I probably will not because Book Two of The Black Wing Chronicles is in its second draft now and I really won’t have the time to crank out 50k words for fresh novel.

It’s a little-known fact that SOVRAN’S PAWN was a pinch-hit NaNo Novel. Two family crises in succession took the wind out of my sails for the Southern Humor story I was working on, so I replaced it with a the back story for my REAL novel, a space opera adventure on which I’d written nearly as many words. By the end of the month, I had the first draft for what would become SOVRAN’S PAWN, a novel I never intended to write. I mentioned the project in my personal blog that has pretty much sat disused since SOVRAN’S PAWN was released this past spring.

http://caliscomfycouch.blogspot.com/2011/10/around-writing-world-in-30-days.html

http://caliscomfycouch.blogspot.com/2011/11/no-go-on-nano.html

I considered the substitution cheating, but my NaNo buddies encouraged me to count it as a win since word counts had been comparable and I’d finished the first draft of the novel in the process.

NaNoWriMo is a wonderful exercise for writers and wannabes. I strongly encourage anyone who has entertained the idea of writing a novel to give it a try. The discipline needed to simply sit down and write to a goal, with no self-editing is an invaluable experience. So many writers get into the habit of not finishing things because they don’t finish a first draft, but continually revise and edit.

I learned several important things from my NaNo experience last year:

  • The first draft is a free-for-all death match between writer and self-editor. Anything, no matter how patently ridiculous, should be allowed in the first draft.
  • Daily word goals are important if you hope to make forward progress on a project.
  • It’s vital to be accountable to someone for your progress on your writing.
  • Don’t spend a lot of time rereading what you’ve written until the end of the first draft. It’s not supposed to be perfect. It’s supposed to tell a story.
  • It’s important to do as much advance planning and story mapping as possible before writing the first words on your first draft.
  • The outline is a suggestion, a guide to keep you from wandering too far into the wilderness, and it’s okay to stray a little if you discover something interesting.
  • Writers MAKE time to write, they don’t fiddle around wishing it would appear.

So if you’re planning on participating in NaNoWriMo this year, here are some links I’ve found helpful:

http://www.languageisavirus.com/nanowrimo/word-meter.html

http://nicolehumphrey.net/backwards-nanowrimo-the-reward-system/

And, of course, here it is again:
http://www.nanowrimo.org/

From Frying Pan to Fire: Scene and Sequel

Most writers have heard the terms “scene” and “sequel.” The first time I was exposed to the concept was when I read Dwight Swain’s book TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER. They are such an important element in storytelling that I wanted to write a blog post about them, but every time I started, I realized that consolidating all of the important elements of scene and sequel into a short post would be nearly impossible if I were to deal with the mechanics of them in any depth. After all, Swain took an entire chapter to delve into the nuances of scene and sequel – they are that important.

At the most rudimentary level, scene can be explained as “action” and sequel can be explained as “reaction.” Both exist together to drive the action forward and control the pace at which the story unfolds. Scene is about linear events and sequel is about the emotional impact of these events and opens the door to the next scene.

Every scene should be like a microcosm of a story in itself, with your character having a goal, reaching an obstacle, and encountering change as a result. In the sequel, the character has an emotional reaction to the conflict created by having their goal blocked and either overcoming or failing, deals with it and transitions into a new mindset in order to face the next scene.

A scene has three elements:

  1. Goal
  2. Conflict
  3. Disaster

The term disaster is used to describe the new negative state of affairs that must be overcome. Swain calls it a hook that pulls the story forward. The goal in a scene is a short-term, focused goal, small in scope and immediate. The conflict is the obstacle keeping your character from attaining his goal.

One example of these elements is found in the opening scenes of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Indiana Jones has reached the golden idol in the temple of the Chachapoyan Warriors. His goal? To take the idol. The obstacle? The pedestal is booby trapped. The disaster? The temple collapses around him.

Enter the sequel. Swain’s three elements of a sequel are:

  1. Reaction
  2. Dilemma
  3. Decision

Reaction: Indy’s smug confidence turns to anxiety as he realizes he’s about to become a permanent part of the site. Dilemma: He doesn’t have the time to carefully negotiate his way back through the booby-trapped floor tiles. The ceiling is falling, setting off the poisoned darts. Decision: He makes a mad dash through and prays he makes it without getting hit by a dart or falling rocks.

Of course, Indy makes it through unscathed, stops and turns, adjusts his hat with a little relieved smile and the wall behind the idol shatters as the giant boulder crashes through. New goal, new conflict, new disaster.

That is an oversimplified explanation of scene and sequel, but you get the idea. Sometimes, it is possible to have several scenes in succession before bringing in the sequel, but the sequel must come into play. The sequel not only lets the character internalize the emotional impact of the action, but it also lets the reader figure out their own emotions as well.

Evoking an emotional response is what good fiction is all about. And that in a nutshell is how scene and sequel work together towards that end.

***

Are you conscious of scene and sequel in your reading and writing? How do you keep track of scene and sequel?

Two Sentences That Changed My Life

When I was a very young and inexperienced writer, the best advice I got from published authors of my acquaintance was to pick up a copy of Dwight Swain’s book, TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER. Yes, this book has been around that long. Actually, this book has been around longer than I have. Before I had a chance to snag a copy from my local bookseller, I received a copy from my Great-Aunt Gladys, who was also a bit of an angel, encouraging my literary aspirations from the time I was two-years-old.

I consumed the book. I devoured it. I internalized it. I made its advice part of my subconscious. I refer to it frequently. My ancient copy is bright yellow, which makes it easy to spot on a crowded bookshelf from far across the room.

The power of two sentences changed my life as a writer.

One of the most difficult tasks for novelists is to condense their story down to less two hundred words. When someone asks you what your story is about, the temptation is to give all the backstory, the world-building and the details you painstakingly created. Nobody wants that. They want to know what the story is about.

Swain said that the heart of your story contains five elements, which can be reduced to two sentences: one a statement, the other a question.

  • Character
  • Situation
  • Objective
  • Opponent
  • Disaster

I’ve found that keeping this in mind when creating my own story summary helps immensely. When someone asks me what SOVRAN’S PAWN is about, I tell them –

When convicted traitor Bo Barron’s father is kidnapped, she has to go under cover on an interstellar cruise liner at a gambling tournament to steal plans for an illegal weapon that are being auctioned off to meet the ransom demand. An attempt on her life by a mysterious methane breather, and the timely intervention of a handsome Inner Circle agent leave Bo wondering whether there is a weapon at all and will she survive the cruise long enough to rescue her father?

That’s a seventy thousand word book condensed into eighty-two words.

  • Character – Convicted traitor Bo Barron
  • Situation – father is kidnapped
  • Objective – (There is a dual objective here) Stealing the plans, but also recovering her father
  • Opponent – Mysterious methane breather (stated) Kidnappers (implied)
  • Disaster – getting herself killed, or losing her father

You know, if I were brutal about it, I could trim it even more.

Let’s take a story you’re probably more familiar with, like STAR WARS (ANH)

When Luke Skywalker learns he’s in possession of stolen plans, he joins forces with Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi to turn them over to the Rebellion. But can he rescue the princess and keep the plans out of the hands of Darth Vader, who is determined to destroy the Jedi and recover the plans no matter the cost?

Or this movie?

During WWII, American ex-pat Rick Blaine finds himself in possession of stolen letters of transit and no easy way to rid himself of them. When the Nazi occupying force, an underground leader, and Rick’s ex-girlfriend all conspire to recover the letters, who will get the letters and who will end up dead or in a concentration camp?

See? Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy.

Pick a favorite book or movie…any story really, and try it! Let me know how it works for you!

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

When I was in college, I let my friend Kathie read early versions of Bo and Blade’s story. Without fail, when she finished reading my most recent pages she would look up at me and ask, “Where do you get this stuff?”

That’s a question I’ve been asked a lot as a writer. Ideas and inspiration come from so many sources, it’s hard to narrow them all down. Some are an amalgam of several completely unrelated bits and pieces, others I can trace with pinpoint accuracy to their inspiration.

Here are a few lines from SOVRAN’S PAWN along with the images and places that inspired them —

***

“…Bo absently studied the domes and spires of Cormoran’s skyline. “

University of Tampa/Cultural Arts District – photo by Matthew Paulson

***

“Because with the sun behind you like it is, your dress is virtually transparent.”

***

“…Bo…followed the hostess as she rounded the corner to the east side of the terrace overlooking the glistening bay. Colorful boats danced across the waves. The view was breathtaking. “

***

“Brilliant sunlight spilled through the massive wall of large-paned windows that lined the gallery. Behind his sunshades, Blade’s eyes flicked over the parade of Marin ancestors whose portraits lined the opposite wall. “

***

“He stepped out onto the sidewalk from the mass-transit station, leaving the cloying odor of exhaust fumes mixed with stale urine behind him. “

***

These are just a few of the images and places that have inspired scenes, settings, and even story lines.  Movies, television, magazine articles, paintings, music videos, off-handed comments from friends and family all have made their way into my subconscious and my writing.

There are several more I could post today, but there are some things I just don’t want to share.

Where do you get YOUR ideas?

Have You Played the Letter Game?

Have you ever heard of “The Letter Game?”

It’s very easy to play and a lot of fun. Anyone can play, writer or novice. Any number can play as well. It involves an exchange of letters or emails. The first player establishes his or her character, their situation, why they’re writing letters or emails and the identity of the person or persons with whom they are corresponding. Each player is responsible for developing their character and telling their part of the story. Plot, conflict, setting, and characters can all be developed this way.

The Letter Game has been used as a form of collaborative fiction or as writing exercises. Some books have even found publication after being written this way. In fact, that’s how I came across this game – I read one of the books!

The book was SORCERY AND CECILIA by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. I was captivated by the idea of telling a story in that fashion. I’ve since played the game several times, with friends who were writers and friends who were complete novices, but possessed of excellent imaginations. One of those books has formed the basis for a SF adventure I’ve got simmering on the back burner, UNDERNEATH DEAD STAR. If the title sounds familiar, it’s also the title of a Blade Devon holofeature.

Yes, I do like things all neat, tidy and intertwined.

The great thing about using The Letter Game to tell a story and exercise your writing skills is that the setting and elements are virtually unlimited. DEAD STAR is set on a deep-space outpost on an asteroid near a star that is in its death throes at the edge of the known galaxy. SORCERY AND CECILIA is set in Regency England in an alternate reality in which magic is not uncommon.

Think of all the possibilities!

One of the most frustrating things for writers is the solitary nature of writing. The Letter Game provides a wonderful opportunity to interact with others within our own medium – kind of like a literary jam session, if you will.

In fact, this gives me an idea that I need to pitch to some of my sf writer friends who have suggested we all find a way to collaborate…

***

Have you ever tried a collaborative storytelling game?

Layers Upon Layers

In my last post From Bones to Hair: Building a Story, I talked about how I build a story layer by layer, building on each draft and adding more details and “fleshing” it out.

I also enjoy drawing. I’m not very good at it, but when I was a child, I chose to devote my energy to learning how to write rather than draw. My aunt was an artist who kept me supplied in Walter Foster books, charcoals and pencils from an early age. It wasn’t until I was expecting my second child that I took a formal drawing class at the local community college to learn better technique.

By that time, I’d been a professional writer for more than ten years and had decided to take time off from writing to be a full-time mom. In that class, I found that drawing is much like building a story.

Recently, I was looking at videos on You Tube, and I came across this one. It illustrates how layering and tweaking and not being afraid to make mistakes is vital to the construct of artistic works. I’m sure if I kept looking, I’d find another video that illustrates the same layering technique for music. This time-lapse video offers a fascinating look at how to build a lifelike drawing. The results are impressive.

From Bones to Hair: Building a Story

When I write a new story, I approach it like constructing a building or a living organism. First you lay the foundation (premise), then you build the framework, which I envision as the bones. At this stage, I have the main plot points down and the major scenes are in their place to push the rising and falling action to the climax and the denoument. Some scenes are fully realized, others are brief narratives that describe the action and the purpose of the scene. Anything goes at this point. Anything, no matter how bizarre or disjointed is allowed. That’s the first draft.

The second draft is where the meat and connective tissue are added. In the second draft, I focus on transitional scenes and place the actions and dialog that foreshadow coming events. I beef up and write the scenes that are simple narratives and I look for plot holes and dropped plot lines. Simple scenes that were mostly dialog get blocking and characters start moving around the space. Scenes that do not serve to advance the plot in any way are cut, but saved for reference or re-purposing.

The third draft gets skin. The “skin” hides the technique. Scene and sequel should flow seamlessly. Transitions are smoothed. Passive voice is removed. Grammar is analyzed for consistency. Character reactions are analyzed and tweaked for appropriate response. Stilted dialog is reworked to sound more natural. Characters’ mannerisms and subtle gestures are tweaked. Setting and descriptions take center stage.

The fourth draft is the hair, makeup and clothing. In the fourth draft, typos, overused words and phrases come out. The fourth draft is where the little details are added to ensure that readers are emotionally involved in the story. Everything that doesn’t create immediacy or place the reader in the middle of the action comes out or gets reworked. This is the devilish draft because it takes  so long to complete and the results are not readily apparent to anyone but me. The devil is in the details and the fourth draft is all about the nit-picky details. Upon completion, this is the draft that goes to the beta readers for a final look.

A fifth draft goes to the editors for a figurative photoshopping, and becomes the final draft that makes it to publication.

I don’t know if all writers work this way, but this technique has worked for me because it allows me to write cyclically. Once I have the main points in, I can jump around in the story as details for plot threads solidify in my mind, returning to key points to make sure there is a coherent flow from one to another.

***

The first draft of THE BROKEN WING is complete and revisions have already begun on the second draft. Still no concrete date set for its release.