Sunday, December 2, 2007

On being read

There are several things a rookie writer must do to become a seasoned author (other than writing, that is.) Reading "how-to" books, attending conventions, reading in your genre, reading out of your genre, and learning about the industry in general are all excellent uses of your time. If you want to be a better writer, though, forget all that. The best way to get better is being read.

"But, Kelly," you say, "I want to be published. That's why my butt's in the chair three nights a week. How do I get read if I'm not published?"

Ah, Grasshopper. Those shiny books on the library and bookstore shelves were all read several times before they ever crossed an editor's desk. Here's the secret: behind every successful author is a posse of alpha- and beta-readers. These readers are in the trenches--they find all plot holes, misspelled words, and continuity errors before anyone else. They'll tell you if a sentence--or a whole chapter--doesn't make sense. They are invaluable to the writer. To find them, look no further than a trusted friend, co-worker, a local writer's group, or a fellow writer you got to know at a convention.

Here's the rub: if your first reaction to joining a writer's group or asking a co-worker to read your stuff is "Uh, yikes," you're probably not ready. And that's okay. Keep writing, and someday you will be. Be aware, though, that in order to become better at your craft, you have to be willing to expose your story, warts and all, to people. You might think you've written the next The Eye of the World but what you've really written is nowhere close to that, and you've got to get your ego out of the way long enough to realize it. You are not perfect. Everything you write is not awesome. However, your alpha- and beta-readers will point out your strengths and your weaknesses. They will help you get your work as close to awesome as you can.

This might not seem possible now, but the more you have people read your stuff, the easier it gets. You'll say, "Tell me what you think," and you'll mean it. You'll get to a point where you hand someone a story and say, "Rip it apart, baby," and you'll be disappointed if they only have a few suggestions. You'll keep writing, they'll keep reading, and you'll get better.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Get out of the way! Or: Don't anger the muse

When writers talk about writing, it's only a matter of time before the subject of the muse comes up. What does the term actually mean? In Greek mythology, the word "muse" refers to any of the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne; each goddess ruled over a specific field of art or science. When an artist today talks about a muse, they mean the source of their inspiration. So asking "where's your muse" is another way of asking "where's your inspiration?"

So, then, the muse. For some writers, it helps to actually visualize their muse as a grumpy man in the next room or three sisters in the basement. Others might use a photograph of their main character or other tangible item that could have been pulled from their story. Some listen to music that their characters would like. Still others claim to not have a muse.

Many moons ago, I used to be one of the latter. I bristled at the notion that motivation could come from something other than myself. Recently, though, I realized I've had a muse all along; it just wasn't easily recognizable because it changed with every story I wrote. During The Gemstone Prophecy trilogy, I imagined a magical stone I could hold in my hand. As "Return of the Black Seraph" happened, I held fast to the desperation and despair my protagonist must feel. For my current short story project, "Gabriel's Wish," I find that I do my best work while listening to the What Women Want movie soundtrack.

Basically, it comes down to this: get out of the story's way. Let it be written how it wants to be written. If that means hand-writing instead of typing or working at a cafe instead of at home or listening to music instead of total silence, do it. And don't question it. Let the writing happen.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Developing characters by author Don Bingle


I believe that characters can develop as you go, but that it is very difficult to develop plot as you write. One of my writer friends (4 published books so far) has a mystery about half done, but she has stalled because "she doesn't know who did it." I think that trying to develop plot as she wrote is what caused her problem. Besides, it is much easier to develop red herrings and clues and the parallel timelines of subplots when the main plot is clear.

I'm not a big fan of extensive outlining, but one of the things I do have a firm grasp on before I start is how the book will start, how it will finish, several major events that will happen along the way. If you are feeling weak on plot, it is often because you don't have that in mind or you don't have enough interim events in the plot line planned out to keep the action/suspense/drive going as you explore characters. It's like going to college and not having a major--it may work out, but having a major/goal is more likely to get you somewhere useful/enjoyable/employable.

Just my two cents.

Donald J. Bingle

Author of Forced Conversion and GREENSWORDMember of the St. Charles Writers Group, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers.

Forced Conversion (Five Star Publishing, 2004) ("Visceral, bloody -- and one hell of a page turner! Bingle tackles the philosophical issues surrounding uploaded consciousness in a fresh, exciting way. This is the debut of a major novelist -- don't miss it." Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning author of Hominids)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Building Character, by Jean Rabe, editor and author

Building Character

Characters are the building blocks of books. Done well, they can drive a bestselling career—despite weakness in plotting, pacing, and structure. Done badly, they can torpedo a clever story.

Is your character valid? Does he ‘feel’ like he’s a real person?

Is he connected? Does he have family and friends? Have they helped “form” him? Who does he love? Who does he care for?

Does the character react to the world you’ve painted around him?

Characterize him with actions, not just description and dialog.

Balance the scales—for every strength, give your character a corresponding weakness or vulnerability.

Balance the scales a little more—create an appropriate villain to challenge the strengths of your hero. For example: Sherlock Holmes—Moriarty, Batman—Joker, “The Profiler”—Jack, Steve Carella—the Deaf Man.

Know what your character wants—then make sure that your book is plotted to make it hard to get.

Know what your character fears—then make sure your book is plotted so that he must face that fear and either master it, or at the very least confront it.

Know what your character dislikes—and use that to amplify the stakes in several scenes. For example: Indiana Jones—snakes.

Use the tools of modern psychology, if it helps you—such as gender studies.

Make a bible—every time you add a character into a manuscript, write down the character’s name, any character traits you’ve gifted him with, and the scene you’ve involved him with. Add to this bible every time you add new layers to a character. Six chapters later, when the character pops up again, you can thumb through the bible and keep your characters consistent.

Let your characters create your story, or let your story create your characters, but make sure that the two are right for each other.

Use stereotypes to your advantage—either letting them shape the outline of your character, or letting your character play against them.
Before You Begin . . .

Understand the conventions of the kind of book that you’re planning to write.

Have a good understanding of your major characters—know their backgrounds and personalities well enough to predict how they’d react in most situations. And listen to those characters, once you know them. When a story goes haywire, it’s usually because a writer is trying to force a character to do something that goes against the grain of that character’s personality.

Have a good understanding of the central conflict of the book.

Make sure the central conflict and the characters match up well. (For example, don’t send a superhero after a bad hairstylist. Superheroes save the world. You need somebody superficial and vain to go after that hairstylist.)

Have some idea of the beginning, middle, and end of your book. You can outline it obsessively, or start with a general idea in the back of your head. Regardless, it helps a lot to know where you are ultimately going when you sit down to write a book.

Have some idea of your setting when you sit down to write a book. Good world building is something that enriches every novel, whether the setting is real or imagined.

Don’t overload any scene with the products of your research. The telling detail, rather than endless lists of what you’ve learned, will be what sticks in the reader’s mind. In other words, show the reader a covered wagon, don’t tell them how the wagon was built and how many laborers were involved.

Strike a balance between dialogue and narrative. A “gray” page isn’t appropriate to commercial fiction (all text, no dialogue, no paragraph breaks), though it may be just the ticket for a scholarly paper.

Start each scene somewhere interesting, build it to a climax, then set the hook for the next scene.

Each scene should reveal something important about either your characters or your plot. If it doesn’t, no matter how pretty it is, it wastes space and reader attention.

When you’re stuck, ask yourself some of the following questions:
What’s the worst thing I can do to this character right now?
What’s the best thing that could happen to this character right now?
Why doesn’t this character want to do what I want him or her to do?
Is there a character handy I can kill off to generate some sympathy or excitement?
If this scene is boring me, what will it do to the reader?
Should I start cutting?
Where was the last place the story felt right—should I go back and start from there, try something different?
What does this character want? Am I going to give it to him or her? If I do, will it be a curse or a blessing?

It usually takes three chapters or so, about fifty pages, to get to know your characters well enough to be certain of them. When the book is about a third complete, read it again to make sure that your characters are consistent, and make notes for any necessary rewrites, before finishing the draft.

A story arc for a book begins the moment that a character is forced to make a great change in his or her life. The story builds until the results of that change are final, and the conflict the change wrought in the character is resolved. So make sure that you start out very close to the moment of change. You can fill in necessary background in the course of the story.

Don't forget that you're not ‘Writing a Book.’ You're telling a story.

Keep ‘point of view’ in mind as you write. Make a decision as to how best to tell your story—whether it’s first-person, third-person limited, third person, third-person omniscient, or whatever. Find the best way to tell your story, and stick to it. Changing character viewpoint in mid-scene is an easy way to lose readers.

Thanks for reading!

Jean Rabe, author and editor

Welcome Message


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Best wishes,

Paul Genesse

Author of The Golden Cord
Book One of the Iron Dragon Series
Five Star Books, April 2008