5 Things Short Stories Have Taught Me
Recently, I have started writing short stories. It started as a side project with a group of friends, then I saw the #52weeks52stories hashtag challenge on Twitter.
Shifting focus from novel length pieces to shorter stories was a lot harder than I thought it would be and it has definitely taught me some things.
1. Walk before you run
For me, jumping straight into a novel was probably not the smartest move. The ideas, the world, the plot and the characters were all there wanting to be told. I had my spreadsheet of detailed plot points and chapter arcs. I plotted the character arcs and even detailed what the antagonist was up to. I was set... right?!
So, why was I having so much difficulty translating my brain rambles into the story I wanted? Turns out, I needed to go back and learn to walk. To refine the basics of my craft before delving into a bigger and more complex story.
Writing short stories has given me the ability, and motivation, to focus on one specific aspect of story writing and fine tune it. It turns out that when something is off in a short story, it is super noticeable. This means I can see when it is working, and more often when it is not.
For this year, I will be trying to focus on an aspect of story writing for each month. Last month it was setting, and this month it is showing the conflict between thought and action.
Other skills I will work on this year:
I probably should do a month dedicated to commas and grammar *shudders*.
2. Get lost in the moments
This one was hard for me to learn. Plotting can kill the magic of the story.
Oh, it hurts even typing that.
Before you scroll down to the comments to hate on me, I want to clarify: OVER plotting can kill a story. I still have a sense of the overall story and the major plot points, but not plotting every aspect of each chapter allows me some freedom to explore the character, the setting and to find fresh aspects to incorporate.
None of my short stories have had a spreadsheet, nor detailed outlines, barely a whisper of character charts, and despite my dubious outlook they turned out fine... sometimes better than fine. So, I guess short stories have taught me to let go, to relax. I don't need to plan everything, surprises are good, even for the writer.
3. Subtext is key
When you have so few words to tell a story you need to learn to use subtext fast. It's not an easy lesson to learn. Making each word count, forcing each description to weave into an overall idea or emotion - it's hard stuff.
During this month (as I said earlier) I am working on creating and showing a conflict between thoughts (and emotions) and actions. This has drastically improved my subtext game. I examine how each sentence can have unspoken qualities, how the actions they show tell the reader something about the character.
Now that I have learned how important this lesson is, I now need to learn how to do it well.
4. Less is more
Much like number three, this one comes from a need to limit the word count. With a few exemptions, all of my short stories want to hulk through the short story word limit into something bigger. And it is hella frustrating. Finding the backbone of the story, the parts that must be told, and then telling them in the most concise way possible is challenging. But, if you can pull it off it feels so good.
So, short story writing has taught me how to examine a plot, a scene and strip it back to bare bones - the essentials. This has definitely helped me see the dead weight in my novel WIPs (Work in Progress). And removing dead weight makes the story much more polished and better paced.
And as I stated before, pacing is something I need to work on.
5. Setting is a character
I found that a lot of the time my characters are on their own. I honesty have no idea why, but to avoided the dreaded navel gaze I had to learn to use my setting as a secondary character. This lesson goes hand in hand with subtext - the idea is that your setting should have its own purpose, maybe it's to test the protagonist, to provide them with obstacles, comfort, or memories. The setting should be doing something.
Short stories have made me more aware of the impact that a well chosen description has on the mood and tension of a scene. It also has forced me to think about what reoccurring images and symbols will work best to add depth to the story. What would my character actually notice? What emotion is my character feeling and how can my setting emphasize that? Can my descriptions of a tree add drama or tension? Should it?
These lessons have definitely improved my story telling.
Have you ventured into the exciting world of short stories?
Learned anything from your stories?
Let me know in the comments.
Until next time: have fun learning from your stories.
Big picture (continued)
For an earth-like planet, you’re going to need tectonic plates which move respective to each other above the mantle. There are three generic types of plate movements, which are important to us:
Earth has seven major plates (North American, Pacific, Australian, Eurasian, South American, African, antarctic), the movements of which have shaped our continents over millions of years. Try make a globe and come up with some plates and vague continent shapes on them and try move them around - come up with sketches of plate movements at 50-million year intervals to see where your present coastline came from and how it evolved.
Mountains are generally created by convergent plate tectonics or more rarely though no-less spectacularly through volcanoes (the Pacific Rim). Through the above exercise in plate tectonics, you can determine where old mountains (worn down by the elements) and new mountains (higher, more jagged) can be found. The positioning of your mountains will directly inform where river basins will be.
In its simplest term, a river basin is an area bordered by highlands and mountains, where all streams and rivers converge into a single river, which leads to the sea, a lake or another river. You can create vague river basins at this point to give you an idea where all rivers will eventually flow. This will give you a clear indication as to which is the largest river (the largest land area within an individual river basin), which might be important to a particular culture you plan on creating.
Rarely, a river basin will not lead to open water. This is what we call an endorheic basin. Basically, all rivers will lead to a particular lake that is not connected to the sea. The lake may fluctuate in size as seasons change (it may expand in winter due to floodwaters or ice melt in spring/summer, or it may shrink in times of drought). Damming of major rivers or climate change may slowly kill such a lake (Aral Sea). Endorheic basins typically have water that is more salty that larger seas (Dead Sea).
This brings me to the contentious subject of rivers, pitfall of many amateur cartographers. There are a few simple rules you need to follow when making rivers:
Some rivers have major silt deposition - they carry lots of silt along their course, which is deposited at the mouth of the river. This often creates large headlands which alter the coastline (Nile delta, Mississippi delta). Keep this in mind when designing your coastlines, particularly around large rivers. Larger deltas do not necessarily belong to the largest rivers. The Ganges river has the largest delta, is the 3rd largest river by discharge, though it is only the 34th largest river in the world. Generally, deltas are very fertile (Nile, Ganges).
A river that flows into another river is called a tributary and the ‘parent’ river is the distributary. The mouth of a river (where it flows into the sea) is the delta, and often protrudes from the coastline as sediment carried along the river is deposited there (look at satellite images of the Nile or the Yellow River). Deltas can be very fertile. Steep rivers flow faster than those with a shallower decline. Fast rivers tend to be straighter and narrower than slower ones, which are wider and more winding. Faster rivers erode the surrounding area quicker than slower rivers. Canyons are created by river erosion. Rivers rarely bifurcate, though bifurcations are common in flat deltas and wetlands.
Now our world is starting to look like a world (see part one). We can begin to position our biomes - forests, deserts, plains, etc. If you want you can also place resources at this time, as realistically, certain resources will be found in certain terrain types.
There are many biomes, which are roughly linked with climates, and I have listed the most common below, alongside a vague description of what generic flora and fauna you’re likely to find in them. Do keep in mind that biomes transition gradually from one to another, and not all species of flora and fauna are contained to the same ‘boundaries’ as each other, so 1 species might be found in grasslands and shrublands, though another might share the shrublands with it but not range as far as the grasslands.
Flora and fauna
Many world-builders like to create their own flora and especially fauna. That’s all well and good but, thinking realistically, when doing so you need ask yourself some questions (particularly if you’re adding a fantastical species): is this species replacing something or being added into the biome?
If it’s the former you obviously need to find a creature that fulfils a similar role in the ecosystem and remove it. If it’s the latter, you need to ask yourself some questions: what’s its role in the ecosystem? What does it eat? What preys on it? Is it wild or domesticated? If it’s domesticated, what wild animal is it descended from?
Keep in mind when creating biomes and populating them how wildlife is spread on earth - herds of bison and other mammals can sometimes number in the tens of thousands if not hundreds; some flocks of birds have been estimated to be in the millions; and schools of fish might even number in the tens of millions! Such large groups cannot survive in the same place for long. So remember the feeding habits of animals.
Humans exploit whatever they find, so their culture will be influenced by what plants and animals they find there. Distinctive species like elephants (ivory), lions, bananas, poppies (opium), even something as innocuous as sheep, can greatly influence an entire culture.
A common staple of fantasy stories, forests are closely linked with myths and superstitions around the world and can similarly form a basis of a fantasy world.
There are three general types of forest (technically incorrect, though for the purposes of worldbuilding, we’ll stick to those). These are:
but are rather reshaped and altered by millennia of human (and sometimes animal) influence. It is thought that as little as 3% of forests in Europe are old growth forest (commonly called virgin forest), with the remainder having been reshaped by millennia or human interference.
Key things to remember:
Atmospheric Circulation - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atmospheric_circulation
Climate - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climate
Endorheic Basin - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endorheic_basin
Genesis of common ores https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ore_genesis#Genesis_of_common_ores
Koppen Climate Classification - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%B6ppen_climate_classification
Plate Tectonics - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plate_tectonics
Rain Shadow - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rain_shadow
River Basin - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drainage_basin
River Delta - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/River_delta
Trade Winds - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trade_winds
Trewartha Climate Classification - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trewartha_climate_classification
Atmosphere of Jupiter - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atmosphere_of_Jupiter
Hadley Cell venus - https://www.seas.harvard.edu/climate/eli/research/equable/hadley.html
Number of atmospheric cells per planet - http://earthscience.stackexchange.com/questions/992/what-factors-determine-the-number-of-hadley-cells-for-a-planet
One artmospheric cell postulation - http://worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/21838/what-would-the-climate-be-like-on-an-earth-like-planet-with-only-one-convection
Part One: The Big Picture
Part Three: Civilizations (13th Nov)
Ok. So, you've fixed all the big picture problems... right? If not, check out some tips on the big picture edits here.
Now that's sorted, we can look at the smaller details.
(Disclaimer: I am not an editor. These are simply pieces of editing advice I have found to be useful)
5. Scene by Scene
6. Imagery and Metaphor
8. Copy-editing and Proofreading
I hope that you found this helpful, and please remember that this in no way replaces a professional editor.
Until next time: happy editing.
Editing got you down? Don't know where to start?
I hear you.
This post will be broken into two parts - big picture and the finer details. While I am a huge "edit as I go" kind of gal, I don't recommend this approach for everyone. It is a massive time suck. I do it because I like the learning process and enjoy refining my craft. However, the way I edit also opens you up to deleting paragraphs, scenes and chapters of words that you have painstakingly gone over.
So, if deleting all your hard work doesn't sound like something you would like to do (let's be honest it is as enjoyable to a rusty spoon to the eye) then perhaps take the more regularly recommended path of editing AFTER you've finished your draft.
Because, you know, logic.
Below are a few suggestions that I have used and found helpful. I am in no way an expert, and this in no way replaces a professional edit (I've said this a bunch of times before - GET A PROFESSIONAL EDIT).
Ideally, each step would require a read through and edit before going onto the next step. What can I say, editing isn't easy. But the more time you spend fixing your word baby, the less time (and money) your editor will need to spend on polishing your manuscript.
You only get out what you put in folks.
I have listed the common glitches for each section, as well as some questions or actions you can do to try to fix the problems.
1. Plot and Structure
2. Character Development
3. Point of View
Part Two: Editing - Finer Details
Until next time: Cut it like it's hot
Ah, voice. The elusive goal of all newbie writers.
But what the heck is it? And how does one find their voice?
Voice is the ability to convey the unique way that you see the world to your readers. It is the style, the themes, the passion and personal observations that you bring to your writing. Voice is the overarching concept that encompasses the tone that you use and the messages you send.
Clear as mud, right?
Well hopefully the steps you can take it find or improve your voice are clearer. Remember that voice takes time, patience and practice to formulate.
1. Write with purpose
This takes three forms: knowing yourself, your message, and knowing your tone.
Finding something that you are passionate in can be really easy or leave you stroking your chin for hours.
How do you go about discovering what you are passionate about? Below is a few points that you can try to help you find what matters most to you:
Know your message:
When you know what you are passionate about, you can begin to look at what message. What do I want to say about my passion? To make a message it needs to be more than just - oh look, here is something I feel strongly about - the message needs to provoke a question and challenge/reinforce your readers current ideas about that passion. Below are a few ideas about how you can craft a message:
Your message becomes a theme when you embed it, discretely, in your novel. You can be show your theme through a number of different ways, here are a few:
Know your tone:
When you have your message nailed down, you can look at what tone suits the how you express your theme. The tone that you choose can have a huge impact on how well your message is received, as well as how clear your voice appears in your novel. Here are some ways to show tone in your writing.
2. Improve your craft
I know, this one is no one's favorite. But as it is what we are hoping to be paid to do - we should at least try to be good at it. Plus, less editing = less money, I'm always a fan of saving money when I can.
And unfortunately, often a weak or poor voice comes from the inability to structure a sentence or create a clean paragraph (*raises hand* I am so guilty of this).
Now I hate this stuff so I am going to link some websites that I found helpful:
University of Bristol
The Writing Center - UNC
Past vs Present
The Write Practice
Passive vs Active
American Journal Experts
This stuff IS important - often good writing will trump a clever or interesting voice. So practice and learn.
3. Develop your voice through editing
Ergh! What am I doing - another evil step.
Yep. Evil but necessary.
Editing allows you to discover what you do well and what you do poorly. It forces you to examine the way you write and to refine it and polish it until it sparkles. Taking the time (and it will be a lot) to edit your work makes you a better writer. It sounds contradictory but it forces you to apply the things you know about the craft of writing. It takes out the garbage and leaves behind the essence of your writing - your voice. And the more you apply the rules and standards of writing, the better you will get at it. Also, it makes you more likely to avoid the same mistakes in your first draft for any later books.
I like to work from big picture to small picture. The idea is to look over the novel as a big picture, examine it for tension, plot holes and overall pace. Then work on the smaller elements that take up progressively less space in your novel. The last part is checking punctuation and spelling errors.
This is an overview of the editing steps I use:
I will be doing an in depth post about this subject on a later date.
DISCLAIMER: PLEASE DO NOT THINK THAT YOU CAN PUBLISH WITHOUT PROFESSIONAL EDITING - THIS STEP IS ABOUT LEARNING AND IMPROVING - YOU STILL NEED A PROFESSIONAL EDIT. SERIOUSLY, JUST HIRE SOMEONE.
4. Experiment with point of view
As writers we tend to get stuck in this idea of what we SHOULD be writing.
"YA/NA is first person" or "Fantasy is third person".
We have this idea, usually because of our reading preferences, of what our writing should look like and sound like. The thing is, if we only write in one POV we might be missing out on discovering the POV that works best for us. You would be hard pressed to find a reader that picks up a book and puts it down with a scowl, saying: "Yuck, first person."
A fun way to experiment with POV is creating pieces of writing from other characters perspectives; I wrote about some activities to try when you have writer's block (see here). In these smaller pieces you can experiment with what works for your style of writing.
Another key to voice is understanding what the pros and cons of each POV offer. This will help you choose one that suits the message you are trying to share.
First Person (Me, I, my)
This style plonks you in the character's head, the reader experiences the life of the character, walking in their shoes.
Explores the question of: Persona vs Identity
Second Person (You, your, yours)
In this style the reader is a character in the novel. It is usually written in present tense. Common uses of this POV is in choose your own adventure novels.
Explores the question of: Identity vs Construction
Third Person (He, she, they)
This POV has the narrator describe the events as they unfold. Usually written in the past tense, this POV can be written in Limited (knowledge is limited to what the character knows/think/feels) or Omniscient (the narrator knows everything, even things the characters don't).
Explores the question of: Internal needs vs External needs
5. Befriend the inner critic
The most consistent way of squashing your voice is to doubt your writing - censor it. And the little voice in your head is most often the culprit. Jerk.
Unfortunately, this is one of the hardest steps. But instead of seeing this inner dialogue as a villain or something that needs to be stopped, we need to befriend it and acknowledge that it is trying to say something that will help us. It just doesn't know how it express itself properly. Resetting the way that your inner critic talks to you and how you respond is difficult and can take some time and work. It will feel like it's not working - don't give up, it is working, just give it time.
Below is some steps that might help calm the nasty critic:
1. Make the conversation more specific:
Change the way your inner critic talks about your writing. Too often it will tell us "Your writing sucks" or "You can't write". It gives us these blanket statements that kill our enthusiasm, that hurt rather than help. Often these comments come at a moment when - let's be honest - your writing might not be that great. And that's why it hurts so much.
But instead of telling it to shut up, ask it "why?". Get it to be specific. Change "This sucks" to "This paragraph doesn't flow" or "The dialogue isn't natural". These changes in phrasing, move the critiques from defeating stabs to the heart into something that you can use, something that is actually helpful.
Next time your critic slams you with a blanket statement, force it to point out what the actual problem is.
2. Make a note of what it is saying and keep going:
Like all good relationships its give and take. Your critic is only going to be helpful if you listen to it. But usually you want to keep writing, you don't want to stop to make changes. So, compromise, make a note (jot it on a sticky note, make a highlighted comment on your document, or just scribble it down in a margin) and keep going. It will keep you writing and your inner critic will be happy.
3. Work on what it is telling you:
Nobody likes to offer help that isn't listened to. Your critic will keep bashing you with horrible corrections until you fix it. And if your critic is anything like mine, it gets meaner the longer you put off fixing the problem. Take note of the commonalities of the critic's message. Then work on it. Research the problem, read books/blogs on how to improve your craft, and make an effort to improve whatever is causing the problem. When it is resolved your inner critic should shut up about it - although it will probably find something new to complain about. Like I said: jerk.
Once you befriend your inner critic you will be able to write how you want to; your voice will become stronger and clearer because its no longer being drowned out with fear and doubt.
I hope you enjoyed the post.
Let me know what you think.
Until next time: don't push fear away, embrace it, it's the part of yourself that has something to say.
I can picture all the side eye I am getting from this post:
"Come on Mel, Setting?? Isn't that the same as World Building?? I see what you are doing..."
Well actually... World Building is creating the world in your mind, Setting is painting a picture of that world through the eyes of your character.
A great Setting enhances the story for your readers. It:
It's pretty dang important. Without Setting your characters just float in the blank, nothingness of plot.
How do we create a great setting? Below are some things that help me:
Use your World Building:
Not familiar with world building? Check out my mistakes (Part 1 and Part 2) before you start - trust me, you don't want to make my mistakes midway through writing your novel.
If you are a world building champion (I hate you), then you are all set to season your story with little bits of delicious setting. Examples:
Don't forget to include your character in these little gems, describe how they feel about these events and possibly use the senses to do so.
Engage the senses:
The senses are a powerful thing, they evoke reader memories and can highlight what is important in a setting. It makes the character seem more real and your setting more vivid.
Now, unless you are writing omniscient, stick to describing what your character can: see, taste, smell, hear, and feel at that given time. This helps ground the readers in the here and now of your story. You can use details that they have seen previously in to create a contrast of time or place, but I would sprinkle it in with a light hand.
But remember that the senses aren't limited to the big five, you can also add in:
Weak, golden sun fluttered through the brick hugged windows. Motes of dust danced in the cold stillness. Empty tables stood to attention around the room's periphery; lonely chairs nestled beneath them. Settling like a blanket over the room, the air was devoid of any mustiness despite being shut up over the summer. As if the sounds and smells had fled the halls once the final bell rang. The clock ticked, perched above a pristine board, marching along even though no one watched it.
I never once mentioned the word school or student, but (I am hoping) you gathered we were in a classroom just before school resumed. I used the sense of touch, sight, smell and hearing (taste would have been weird) in the writing above.
Sometimes writing an original setting is like a game of Taboo, you have to challenge yourself to describe a place without using the shortcut words. But not every setting needs a flowery description - which brings me to my next point.
Be specific and selective with what you include:
Does your reader need a twenty page description of an office that she will visit once? No.
The point of this section is to choose your descriptions wisely. If you want to spend a paragraph describing exactly what that wing back armchair looks like, there had better be a good reason. Someone better make love on it or it better be demon possessed. Otherwise, why are you wasting my time?
Questions to ask yourself:
** If your character is running for their lives, please do not take the time to describe the pot plants beside the desk she is ducking behind. She wouldn't notice it - she'd be too focused on the killer. It pulls the reader out of the story - the reader is wondering why the plant is so important. And it often ruins the pace - if she can stop to notice the plants is she really in danger?
Giving too much information slows the pace of your story, it shifts the focus from the plot and characters to the setting. Sometimes this is good. This can be done beautifully to explore themes around place and landscape, or to capture a mood. Be purposeful with your long winded descriptions, make them mean something - make their lazy behinds work for every letter that you are bestowing upon them.
Below is an example of descriptions that could have conveyed the same idea with much less:
The poulterers shops were still half-open, and the fruiterers were radiant in their glory. There were great, round pot-bellied baskets of chesnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown- faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made in the shop- keepers' benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people's mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons...
Yes. I know.
I will wait for the hate mail to roll in.
How DARE I use Charles Dickens as an example of what not to do... the horror!!
But I mean, read it. (Yes. It is beautiful. Yes. It does set the scene - a minor one. Yes. It discusses the idea of Christmas Feasting as well as, creating a juxtaposition to the description of the same event earlier in the novel; which in turn highlights the growth of Scrooge's character. I get it.) When I was a teenager reading this I groaned so much at this scene. Why did I need to read a 40 word description of onions? I didn't. And to this day, I still don't. *shrugs*
And this is the point I am trying to make, did the onions propel the plot? Were they integral to the character's journey or solving a problem? No. So why waste words on things that might make readers skim read or even *gulp* put it in their DNF (Did Not Finish) pile? Today's market, especially if you are in YA, has no room for this overly purple prose. Your reader is being forced to read about something that has no importance, and thus, no place in your novel.
So save all your delicious descriptions for the places that are important or that your character will spend a lot of time in.
Use character interaction:
This one is my favorite. It is like allowing your character to lead your reader through their world. What they notice and interact with says a lot about your character. Every person will react to an environment in a different way, and the same person may react differently to the environment on different days (E.g. revisiting a place from childhood and it seems smaller than they remember). So when your POV (Point of View) changes or even when your character changes, alter the way you describe the world. Focus on different objects, interactions. Describe them in a way that feels authentic to the character.
Using quick, dynamic bits of setting concurrently with character action and dialogue adds depth to both your setting and your characters. YASS!
Say a character walks into a room, in the room their is a toy puppy. Characters can react in a variety of ways:
Using the descriptions of what is in the setting also tells us about the owner of the space:
Set the mood and foreshadow:
Using the weather, the temperature, the landscape or objects within a setting can help instill a the same feeling in our reader that the character is feeling. Have fun with the way you describe the things your character sees - they are not a objective viewer. Your character will never walk into a a room and go: "Oh, a red chair". chances are that they are going to have an opinion of that object based on their preferences, how they are feeling, whether they like the person who owns it or any past experiences with a red chair. Use this to your advantage.
Adjectives and verbs are your best friend. The choices you make with verbs and adverbs changes a somber downpour to refreshing rainstorm, or a ravenous deluge to an unwelcome precipitation, with a few synonyms and an adjective change.
So when describing, add depth to the setting by using words that emphasize the overall feeling your character has.
A mood filled with dread can be evoked in setting by using descriptions like:
The alluding to death, darkness and uncertainty gives the reader feelings of unease, of worry. But, using describing the same setting with different adjectives changes the feeling completely:
Setting can also foreshadow what is to come. Just like choosing the right adjective or verb choosing the right location for the event, or shaping the mood of the location can help readers guess what might happen next - leaving them with feelings of dread or excitement (Ahem - keeping them reading).
Think of it this way, if your sweetheart called you because they wanted to meet up "to talk" which setting would you prefer?
None of the settings would actually influence the outcome of the conversation, the person knows what they want to say, but the setting gives us an idea what the outcome might be. This is a fun literary device to play with, because we can lead a reader to a resolution that they feel is satisfying (they saw it coming) or you can punch them in the throat with an unexpected plot twist (E.g. the character on the cliff is proposed to, the character in the restaurant is dumped).
Be a little ambiguous:
Lastly, leave a little to the imagination. Allow your reader to insert themselves in your world, allow them the space to imagine it how they like. The brain is a fickle little fellow, if it thinks that something looks one way and you tell it otherwise, every time that setting comes up it will protest. It jars against the reader - pulling them out of the setting/story briefly.
Ambiguity is not vague! Be as specific as you can with your word choice when you do describe something, but don't describe everything (E.g. Coffee cup - describe the color, if it is empty, the lipstick mark on it, but then leave out things like the exact location in the room of the table it is on, how much liquid it can hold, how it reminds you of the cup you had that broke - or vice versa). The idea is don't bog your readers down with describing EVERYTHING about the setting and object.
Again this is why choosing what to describe and how to describe it is so important. If in doubt - leave it out.
Thanks for reading this behemoth.
Until next time: make your settings work hard for you.
1. For all those not aware of your awesomeness, what should we know about you?
I’m a newbie to the book writing world. Completing my first two novels has only been a recent adventure of mine. I started out with a background in poetry, songwriting, guitar playing, and performing as the lead singer in a rock band during my teens and twenties. (Think Ann Wilson of Heart) Although, I hung up that part of my life away years go.
I’m also a mother and a grandmother – I started out very young - and have been working in the field of Human Resources/Accounting for over twenty years.
Wow! That introduction really aged me.
2. Why do you write?
I write because there is a story burning inside me. It’s the only reason I write. I could never be in a contract where I had to write on demand. If there’s no inspiration or passion, there’s no story to tell.
3. What inspires you to write?
Real life. Or how I want real life to be. Most of the character in my books are based on people I have personally known, and/or how I wish they would be. As an author, I can re-create the past and the future – and people. It’s a therapeutic release for me.
4. What does the typical writing session look like?
It’s usually past midnight. My prime time for writing. Just me, a Diet Pepsi and my cat. And the quiet stillness in the air that helps my brain to think.
5. What are you currently working on?
My current WIP (Work in Progress) is about a naïve 12-year-old girl who befriends a handsome, young drifter in the 1970’s. His arrival in town causes quite a stir in the ultra-conservative community. When strange things begin to happen, their fingers immediately point to him. But all is not what it seems. Nor the reason that he has arrived.
6. What do you love about this piece of writing?
It’s a departure from my first novel – which was loosely based on my relationship with my mother. Unlike that one, this story is pure fiction and stretches my boundaries as an author. I’m excited about the challenges it pushes my writing to be.
7. Give us a little sneak peak, what insights can you share about the main character?
Annie, the main character, is a preteen living a sheltered and somewhat routine suburban life in a small valley town in Northern California. In the beginning, she is oblivious and untouched by the harsh realities of the world. But over the course of one summer, her naivety and innocence are shattered by a sequence of traumatic events. It’s part coming of age, and her exposure to the depths of evil a person can inflict on others.
8. What is the hardest thing about writing?
That’s easy. Writer’s block. The story may already be complete in my head, but transposing those thoughts to paper is an entirely different matter. Especially transition parts. I don’t want to bore the reader with any unnecessary writing or dialogue until the next event occurs.
9. Which famous person, living or dead would like to meet and why?
I’m not a huge celebrity fan per say. I don’t believe any human should be idolized above another. But if I had to choose, I would probably say J.K. Rowling. I’m fascinated with authors who can create an entire world from nothing. A genre I would fail miserably at attempting.
10. If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself as a new writer?
DO NOT TAKE CRITICISM PERSONALLY! Sharing your work with others can be intimidating and nerve wracking. But if you trust the reviewer, let them do their work. My librarian daughter ripped the first draft of my book, Dancing at Midnight, to shreds. I felt like a fraud and wanted to give up. But she loves her momma and did me the biggest favor of my life. I learned so much from that first taste of criticism. It made me a better writer. And even though it still hurts, I’ve learned to accept someone’s comments more graciously. I don’t always have to agree. But I need to be open enough to listen.
1. For all those not aware of your awesomeness, what should we know about you?
Haha, awesomeness. I wouldn't say that, but thank you. I guess what I'd love people to know about me is that while writing is very important to me, I am also a wife (11years this month), and a mother to two amazing kiddos. I'm passionate in all that I do, which can be a flaw if things don't go my way.
2. Why do you write?
I write because the alternative of not having the escape that writing brings me is deadly. Writing saved my life. It's curbed the depression and limited the thoughts of just being done with life.
3. What writers inspire you?
I've always been a fan of James Patterson, Nicholas Sparks, Robyn Carr, and Debbie Macomber. Which these four have inspired the mixture of the genre that I am currently writing. I also admire indie authors like myself. It's not easy doing it on your own, especially with little support. The real indie authors (yes, I believe there are two types) really inspire me by their compassion for the craft.
4. What does a typical writing session look like?
I have to have a clean home before I can focus on writing. I also MUST have some type of sound going because silence causes anxiety. Currently, I have FRIENDS playing in the background. I'm pretty good at tuning it out to focus on my work. As for how often, whenever the inspiration strikes. I usually use my notepad on my phone, or a notebook I carry around everywhere I go. You never know when the words will flow. I write for long periods of time when the kids are either sleeping or in school. I don't like to stop/start so often, it gets frustrating.
5. What are you currently working on?
Currently, I am working on Down to Sleep, my debut novel that I am super excited about. Readers can find out what it's about, here... http://ktdaxon.com/book-nook/down-to-sleep/
It is a Romantic Thriller/Mystery/Suspense. It's one of those. It's sad that I don't know WHICH one, but it could likely fall into either category.
6. What do you love about this piece of writing?
What I love about this piece of writing is how much it has evolved since I wrote the first draft. It began as a love story, and I've added drama, suspense, and murder to the mix. I've shaken things up a bit, and the antagonist is someone I've come to love, despite his evil ways.
7. Give us a little sneak peek, what insights can you share about the main character?
I have 2 MC's. Gabby is the original MC. She's the passionate, loving, and sensitive side of me. Landon, he's the antagonist but also a MC. He is sensitive, loving, and passionate too, but he's also a tad bitter and seeks revenge. A broken heart once broken too often can do that to a person.
8. What is the hardest thing about writing?
The hardest thing about writing for me is that I am a perfectionist. I have Writing OCD. I tell myself not to edit as I go, but it's a tick with me. It's made writing this story take forever!
9. What is the most rewarding thing about writing?
I find the most rewarding thing about writing is the journey the story takes you on. It's one that is different from what the reader experiences and it molds you into someone new. Change is scary, but if you allow your writing to take you to new places, you'll learn to embrace the change that's best for you.
10. If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself as a new writer?
Don't waste money on college, on a degree that won't fully serve you. I knew midway through my degree that I did NOT want to be a teacher anymore. I wish I would have saved $$ and figured out what I really wanted to do. Now, I'm stuck praying my debut will roll in enough money to cover the student loan debt. Ha! Nah, I don't write for money. I want to take my readers on a new journey, and give them a chance for new discoveries.
I love complex characters. Ones that have parts of them that are at war; parts that make them flawed (genuinely flawed, not "I'm too organised" kinds of flaws); parts that shift, change and grow. So finding an organised way to chart that depth of character was a nightmare. The templates I found were either tediously detailed (What is their favorite season? What is their favorite piece of clothing - cue eye roll) or only focused on the external. Knowing what a character looks like IS important, but for me the internal nuts and bolts are much more important - much more vital.
Below is a sample image of what I created. At the end of the post is an empty (docx file) that you can download. Free!!
Got to love free stuff.
In this post I will explain the sections, the order that I fill them in and why I think it is important to include this information.
Overarching - Beginning, Middle and End
Why the four sections?
For me characters should always be changing - getting better or worse. So to make sure I charted this change I tried to break up the story into manageable chunks. Making the character's growth feel authentic - just be careful to make the transitions gradual, starting internally before they affect the external expressions.
I feel that this is the driving part of your backstory - the part has shaped the character up to this point. Most of our characters have pretty crappy backstories and there is usually one or two events that we give them that really drive their actions or personality (e.g. dead parents, being cursed, etc.). Fleshing out how your backstory impacts on your character will give you the space to explore that character's personality in depth at the beginning of the novel.
1. Events - Positive and Negative Traits
The very first series of boxes I fill in are the "Important Events" boxes. Now these may not be events that are important to your plot, and they definitely should not be the same for every character (Don't you dare Ctr+C, Ctr+V this section!). Each character will have events that are very important to them and shape who they are becoming (even if it's not mentioned in the novel).
I decided to link both positive and negative traits to an event because I believe that each event shapes us in that way. It also allows us to create complexities within the character. Things that they don't like about themselves, things that scratch when they brush up against one another. The example below is a very simplistic overview of what a changes a character might experience due to events in their lives.
Again, this is a very simple example, you can have as many or as few traits as you like. I like to mimic the number of traits to the number of events so each event has its own negative and positive trait.
2. Beliefs - Goals and Fears
Once you have the events and traits down, it will help inform your next step - identifying what the character believes, as well as what they want more than anything else at that time, and the thing they fear most.
Again - repeating myself so much - I like to link the number of beliefs/goals/fears to the number of events for each section (e.g. beginning = 3 events = three beliefs = three goals = three fears) this will not always work out, sometimes a fear or goal can encompass more than one event - if so yay! Less work is always good.
Beliefs are very integral to who a person is and what drives them. I heavily link my beliefs for beginning, middle and end to the events, this way the fears and goals relate directly to what is happening.
In the example below, the character is not making very smart choices or interpreting the situation in a great way. Luckily, I will never use this example. But it does serve its purpose well. It highlights how our beliefs change our fears and goals.
Goals and Fears
Fears and goals do not have to be complimentary. Sometimes our fear can drive us to do things that are opposite to our goals. I imagine in the story above that they fear their partner cheating so much that they drive the partner insane, straining the relationship with their insecurity. As well as their goal to prove their worth, it might come across as desperation because they are pushing too hard - worried that no one will love them.
This again adds complexity to your character and their actions/reactions.
3. Values and Moral Ambiguity
Moral ambiguity gives your character some dark edges. Ambiguity makes them a less reliable narrator, it skews their world view. It makes them more human, flawed. Moral ambiguity often goes hand in hand with a value. Much like fears and goals, often our moral ambiguity directly impacts our ability to attain the one thing we want.
This makes their plight more uncertain, as they are acting in competition or opposition to it.
A big thank you to Dawn Jonckowski for inspiring this post.
I hope you guys enjoyed this post and find the template useful.
Until next time: craft complex characters, give them more shade of gray than a certain book we all know.
An impassioned exercise in absolute futility.
That's as confident an answer as I can give when it comes to illustrating what it is to write the odd, sub-genre of paranoid fiction.
It's writing, and writing, and writing, then deleting entire pages, entire passages, entire stories, only to immediately replace them with the same exact phrasing. It's spitting fragments and nonsense on a page, with phrasing so out there it's complete gibberish, not understandable in the least, but it's the closest thing to the gut feeling, the truth of the instance that one can get, so, "It'll have to do."
It's writing something that makes others uncomfortable.
It's writing something that haunts, and leaves the reader even more ignorant of the content than before they consumed the story. It's leaving the reader feeling as though they understand, but wondering if they do.
And above all, paranoid fiction is there to hurt and twist a brain that feeds on it, so that it won't be the same, can't be the same afterwards.
Never, ever, never again.
You've read it - paranoid fiction. I know you have.
If not in whole, then at least in part, a part, some part of a story or book that you've loved, or hated.
It was a suspenseful turn, where you read it.
A break of confidence - your confidence - in having it all "figured out".
It was that time when you doubted yourself and trusted the story, because nothing was making sense. The rope, the plot was unraveling and the strands were too far apart to ever come back together, and you knew that, but you didn't know how to process it, how to make sense of it.
And perhaps, probably, that moment passed in the story, in the book you read. It passed so that, in the end, everything worked out wonderfully, either in finality or in cliffhanger. But end it did, and everything made sense, everything was understood, and the moment of doubt can be written off as a clever writing tactic, a wonderful use of narrative - a literary device.
That feeling, that instance you've probably read somewhere, is what paranoid fiction is.
Only much more.
Paranoia is the story, and the main character.
In paranoid fiction, the uncertainty and doubt is written - must be written - as the main character. It is central to the story. It is the plot, it is the catalyst, it is the conflict, it is the resolution, it is the everything.
Questions are never asked, because to ask a question is to suppose that there is an answer waiting to be given. Instead, things, ideas, concepts must be proposed, but only in a way completely definite, so that the reader forms assumptions and manifests their own doubts.
So, in paranoid fiction, you will never read:
"He'd never been on the other side of the door. He'd never opened it, and was given no hint as to what lay beyond the blase woodwork. Putting his ear to the door, he strained to hear what lay beyond, but no sound reached him, leaving his understanding dark, unfulfilled.
Nothing in the above passage could be considered paranoid fiction. Everything is a question. Everything is fluid. The man's doubts are painted thick. There are no assumptions to be made, no doubts to be had, no wondering as to the reliability of the narrator.
This, however, is what one would read in a paranoid narrative:
"The shut door, the door unopened ever stood before him, and he knew...
This is paranoid fiction.
The door is unopened, yet the main character knows who's on the other side of the door. He knows that it's a specific person, and that person has brought another specific confederate whose presence is troublesome for the main character. None of this is questioned, but it causes questions in the mind of the reader. Even if they aren't aware of the question, they are left with the feeling that something isn't lining up.
And just as the reader begins to assume that somehow the main character knows what's going on, what waits on the other side of the door, the narrator contradicts everything, passively, with the line, "...where he knew they waited." It isn't that the narrator agrees. It's more of a "I believe that you believe it" instance.
So is there, or isn't there someone on the other side? Does the main character know, or is he not to be trusted? Is the narrator reliable, or is the main character?
None of these questions were given in the text.
Everything was stated as a fact, and because of this, when they begin to contradict logic and other facts previously given, the level of doubt rises, while the level of confidence plummets.
By the end of the snippet, nothing can be taken for truth, because everything has been stated as truth, but we know not all viewpoints can be accurate if they aren't lining up.
In this way, paranoid fiction establishes an ultimate goal:
It makes the reader wonder, it builds arguments, and inspires opinion in the face of lack of absolute proof. In essence, for the reader to have an opinion means they are acting on faith alone, and in the face of science and reason, faith is absurd. But when all the evidence is contradictory, what else does the reader have to fall back on?
Thus begins the cycle of paranoia, of insanity.
Proving to establish belief, while believing that proof is there in its clear absence.
Like I said before, paranoid fiction isn't comfortable. It gives no answers to the questions one has, but stands firm, unyielding in its proclamations of ridiculousness as fact.
Not unlike the world, yes?
Then again, what do I know?