Saturday, September 1, 2012

How to Write Book in a Month

Unfortunately, I can't accomplish the title of this posting. I've tried twice now, and failed both times. At least I'm consistent, right? At least for the second failure I reached the wordcount goal.

Part of the reason I haven't updated this blog in a while is that I was preparing for (and then participating in) National Novel Writing Month's two summer events.

In June and August, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) host Camp Nano. The goal is the same as in November. You're supposed to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days or less. In August you get 31 days... but that felt like cheating, so I finished up on August 30th.

In June, I failed to reach 50,000 words. I got to about 8,000, and then life happened, the way it sometimes does. You realize you need to do certain things (such as work, sleep, exercise, and eat), that interfere with attaining a productive wordcount, and before you know it, you're so far behind that there is no way to catch up by the end of the month.

That novel was about telepaths, and at least June's Camp Nano gave me a good start on it. When I return to that project, I will have a solid platform from which to continue.

In August, I reached 50,000 words. (Actually, it was 50,023, but who's counting?) This novel is nowhere near complete... and it's just the first in what I'm picturing as a trilogy. Think Supernatural meets Van Helsing, with a dash of the Kitty the Werewolf series. Add Amazons, the pressures of court intrigue, and a coming-of-age story, and maybe you'll begin to appreciate why 50,000 words isn't long enough. The book's working title is "Hell Hath no Fury Like an Amazon Scorned".

The main difference between my June Camp Nano experience and August's success was that I wrote with a higher level of consistency. I tried to write every day, but when that failed, I consistently made myself write more the next day. One day, I even wrote 4,000 words, which is a personal best for me in these writing events. I've heard about people who had 6,000-word days. That's an accomplishment I applaud, but hope never to duplicate.

The posting below this one is all about the trait that helped me reach my wordcount goal this past month... consistency. Have fun with it, and keep writing!

Prompt: Consistency is Everything

As promised in the post above, here is a writing prompt!


He could forgive anything except inconsistency. In the course of his long career, he had seen people who were phenomenal at their complex tasks and others who struggled to accomplish even the most basic of assignments.

However he didn't begrudge the less talented workers nearly as much as he despised the ones who were inconsistent. At least he knew what to expect from the consistent ones, whether their standards leaned toward accomplishment or toward failure.

"Sir," one of his more menial employees rapped lightly on the doorjamb and then spoke. "Sir, they're ready for launch..."

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Spell It Out For Me: How to Outline Your Stories

Does anyone here hate to outline their stories? *looks to audience, counts dozens of hands, sighs, and then launches into lecture* Okay, yes, outlines are boring, tedious, time-consuming, and it feels like they kill the creative spark, dousing that fire of literary aspiration before it even has a chance.

Considering all of that, why would you ever want to use an outline? I have given several good reasons in the post below this one, but I'll give one great reason right here: an outline assures that your story has a goal.

While that might not seem all that important when you're furiously scribbling down a brilliant first chapter, eventually inspiration will slow down (due to the need to eat, sleep, or go to one's day job), and when you come back to the story, it could be difficult to recapture that creative spirit. (For those of you who have no problem with this, please share your secret.) For the rest of us, here are a few prompts that will need the next 4 to 5 scenes outlined before you start writing them. I'll provide the pitch of the story, and you write a few sentences for the first 4 or 5 scenes.

Pitch 1: Sara was having a tea party with her favorite dolls when she abruptly finds herself transported to the place she had just imagined. Her dolls are real people, and she is welcomed warmly into the family. Since she pretended that her dolls were princesses, the family in question is royal. The opportunities for fun are nearly infinite, but so are the intrigues and plots against the royal family. Will Sara be stuck in the middle?

Pitch 2: As a member of EarthForce's forward brigade, Jackson knew he would see battles and enemies that most humans couldn't imagine...but he never expected to face other humans in battle. When Jackson's expeditionary brigade lands on a newly discovered hospitable planet, they try to lay claim to it for Earth's burgeoning population, only to find that humans already live there - and they refuse to relocate. Torn between duty to his unit and his duty to humanity, Jackson struggles with whether he should follow the customary order (cleanse future colonies for the human population's arrival) or side with the humans who were there first, and know the danger of the planet well.

A Word About Outlines

Unless you're an absolute genius, chances are you'll need an outline to tackle a writing project of greater length. Note: Even if you are an absolute genius, it's still a good idea to organize those superior thoughts using an outline.

I'm currently gearing up for JuNo (National Novel Writing Month's June event), so I am rediscovering the value of a detailed outline. The book I will be writing for JuNo is called "Mindbreakers' Rebellion". It's about what would happen if telepaths started cropping up in distressingly large numbers. We're not talking Professor Xavier and Jean Grey... more like the gradual creation of a new species (tentatively called homo sapien telepathus, though my Latin is rudimentary at best. If anyone knows better, I'm open to suggestions on the genus and species naming conventions.)

Since I'll need to write at least 50,000 words for this story in the next month, I began writing an outline of the scenes. How to the two main characters meet? Which secondary characters are more important than they seem, and how can I drop hints? Is the villain hiding in plain sight, or hiding 'off-screen'?

By creating an outline, I can answer all of these questions before I ever put pen to paper. An outline also helps me determine what ending will be most enjoyable for the reader, most believable, and work out the challenges in writing whichever ending I decide on.

See the post above this one for prompts that need outlines. Have fun, and keep writing!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Make Your Story the Life of the Party

Complete the prompts below, each of which depicts a different type of party. Try to answer these questions, and see the post below for other ideas about how to use a party setting to explore your characters' reactions to each other. Who attended the party? Does your main character want to be there? If not, how does he or she cope? Is there food? (Is it any good?) Who is hosting the party, and why have they chosen to do so?

Party Sequence One:

As she looked out from the balcony and saw the cascade of period costumes, swirling on the hardwood dance floor, she wondered why she wasn't enjoying the party more. All of her friends had been invited, and they were here. Everyone else seemed to be happy, so at least she wasn't a complete failure as a hostess.

Then, she saw the reason for her irritation. Across the room, in a ridiculous outfit that didn't match the period theme (as clearly stated in the invitations), stood her oldest enemy...

Party Sequence Two:

He snagged a snack off a passing tray, plopping it in his mouth, chewing, and swallowing without admitting to himself that he didn't even know what kind of cheese he had just eaten. His dress shirt scratched uncomfortably in his waistband, his polished shoes felt too small, and the marble floor caught every inane laugh and loud brag, amplifying the noise until his head ached.

Why was he here again? Oh, right... he was being supportive. He sighed, grimaced, and then waded back into the chattering crowd with a forced smile plastered on his face...

Expanding Characterization: Party On!

A great way to introduce the hero, villain(s), secondary characters, and stock characters is to invite them all to a party as part of your book. While not every story is well-suited to throwing a party, I think you'll find that only the most strait-laced, strict, or unusual of settings would absolutely forbid any prospect of a party.

Whether your characters are attending a dance, having drinks at the governor's mansion, or playing video games during a sleepover, there are many possibilities for exploring your characters' reactions in this less serious environment.

Finish the party sequence prompts above, adding in things like:
A) Whether the hero and villain would fight each other even though everyone else just wants to enjoy the party,
B) Whether the hero enjoys the party or spends the night avoiding an angry ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend, or
C) If the party comes to an abrupt halt, what caused it? Earthquake? Magical portal opening? Someone called the cops to complain about the noise?

Use your imagination, and have fun writing!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Stating the Obvious Subtly

There is a fine line between hiding hints in your story (so that they aren't too blatant) and hiding them so well that the reader is confused when the big reveal (villain's identity, plot twist, love interest, etc.) happens. Take a look at the example below, and then practice writing the scenes described in the prompts in a subtle way, rather than an obvious one.

Obvious: As he walked down a dark alley, his skin prickled, overly alert for any sign of an attack. He rounded the corner of a dumpster quickly, wishing he had a weapon of some sort. When he saw the frail, broken person lying on the cracked asphalt beside the dumpster, he realized he had no need of one. He recognized the man from the bar two nights ago.

"The man you asked me to look for?" the broken man said in a raspy, fading voice, "His name is Summers."

Subtle: As he walked down a dark alley, his skin prickled, overly alert for any sign of an attack. He rounded the corner of a dumpster quickly, wishing he had a weapon of some sort. When he saw the frail, broken person lying on the cracked asphalt beside the dumpster, he realized he had no need of one. He recognized the man from the bar two nights ago.

"What happened to you?" he asked the frail, broken man, kneeling to check for wounds.

The broken man laughed, but stopped when cracked ribs made their presence felt. "I couldn't get his name. This..." he gestured at his crushed chest, "happened first. But he mentioned a warehouse on the south side of town...something about plastics."

Prompts: Now, try writing the following scenarios subtly. Don't give away the answer in the first page, or even the first chapter.

Scenario A: Your character is running late for a class at college, and someone has stolen his/her homework. Was the homework stolen, or just misplaced? If misplaced, then what clues about the dorm room will help him/her find it? If stolen, will a roommate or security guard help him/her find it?

Scenario B: Your character is working at a lemonade stand, and he/she witnesses something that hints at a larger crime being committed. What is this 'something', and what does your character do about it?

Have fun with it, and keep writing!

Dropping Hints for Your Characters

I recently read a book - the author of which I will not embarrass by naming here. It was a good book, with a likeable anti-hero, plenty of suspense, intense action, and a well-designed plot. The one weakness to the book was how the author introduced a dead, mostly useless character.

Rather than simply asking a motel manager if they had any messages, the two main characters are arrested by the police. While under arrest, one of the main characters is questioned about the death of a man who was staying in their motel. This gives the secondary main character an opportunity to tell the main character about the dead man - who he was, why he was in town, and how that helps them in their current mystery.

Unfortunately, the whole chapter felt contrived and overblown. From the police kicking down a door to the easy brutality inflicted against the main character, the main point of the chapter seemed to be making the town's police force unpopular with the reader. I already knew from previous chapters that we weren't supposed to like that town's law enforcement, so I didn't need this chapter to remind me so blatantly.

That being said, I have purchased the other two books in this series. However, that was in spite of the chapter I just mentioned. The anti-hero is sufficiently likeable, and the plots are intriguing enough for me to ignore that one chapter as an unfortunate anomaly in the writing.

How would I have handled it differently? See the post above for an example and some practice prompts.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

In Dire Literary Straits

This bookend prompt presents a scene where your main character faces the unforseen problem of an overdue library book. The problem is surprising to your main character, because she never received a library card! Fill in the details between the Left and Right bookend prompt, helping the character with this problem. See the post below this one for strategies on how to solve, avoid, or surrender to the problem of overdue book fines.

Left Bookend: I opened the mail that had my local library's name on it, wondering why they were writing to me. I think I went there once on a school field trip or something, but I've never been back since. The paper I pulled out of the envelope looked official, like a bill.

Right Bookend: The one thing I could be sure of by the time I'd finished was that they would never send me any mail ever again.

A Good Way to Make Your Story Longer... Surprise Your Characters

A good way to add words to your story is to surprise your characters. It can be a pleasant surprise (i.e. the super actually fixed the plumbing in your main character's apartment), or an unpleasant surprise (i.e. despite sending payment for a bill on time, it arrived late... and now your main character owes a late fee, as well as the original bill).

In my opinion, unpleasant surprises are better. Not only are they more realistic and relatable, but they also take up more space on the page.

If you can link the unpleasant surprise to your main plot, that's great. If you can't, it will probably reveal a side of your main character that the reader hasn't witnessed yet.

The unpleasant surprise can be anything from a wrongfully-sent foreclosure notice to a change in a plan to attend a play/movie/event that the main character somehow misses. Either way, presenting this challenge will show your main character's:

A. creativity in succeeding despite the unpleasant surprise,
B. stubbornness as he or she refuses to change his or her plans, or
C. resignation as he or she decides to avoid the problem entirely.

See the writing prompt above for an example, and have fun writing!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Take Novel Ideas from Common Idioms

Try writing a page about each idiom. Do you take the idiom literally, or does it apply in some obscure way to a character, setting, or plot line that you already constructed? See the post directly below this one for an example of how to take an idiom literall or how to expand on the implied meaning of an idiom.
Idiom 1: Beating around the bush.
Idiom 2: Elvis has left the building.
Idiom 3: Water under the bridge

The Most Annoying Question Authors Receive…

‘Where do you get your ideas?’
What makes this question annoying for me is that half the time even I don’t know where the idea for my next novel will come from. For example, the other day I was having lunch with a friend, and she had a turn of phrase that I’d never heard before. I won’t share it here (that’s my idea, after all!), but I will give a few other examples.
I like to use idioms as a way to build characters, settings, or plot lines. This is more useful in the formative stages of writing, rather than when I’m trying to write myself out of a literary corner.
Example 1: “Those two get on like a house on fire.”
Maybe it’s just that I’m not British, but comparing the quick spread of friendship to the rapid destruction of a structure seems counterintuitive. I might take this idiom and make a story out of it by understanding it literally. A house on fire is a bad thing, so the two people must be enemies… and go from there.
Alternatively, I could write a story about the rapid spread of friendship, with characters going from complete strangers to lifelong friends in a single glance. (Actually, the second one sounds more interesting.)
See the prompt above to create your own story from common idioms in the English language.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Prompt: The Morning Traffic Jam

Start with the prompt below, and write for as long as you can. Then, review what you have written, and make it as interesting as possible. Look to the post below "Quality Word-Padding" for how to make your writing longer without making it boring or pointless.

"I thought driving in the carpool lane was supposed to be faster," one of my passengers complained. "What's taking so long?"

I didn't reply, because the answer was obvious. Someone had swerved in front of a truck, forcing it to turn abruptly and spill its load of timber all across the road. It didn't bother me that we were delayed, or that at least one of my passengers had more hot air than common sense... What bothered me was that I had seen the car that swerved in front of the truck. After causing this traffic jam, that car's driver sped away, avoiding the consequences of the overpopulation of automobiles idling behind the spilled timber.

Quality Word-Padding

If you need to make your short story or novel longer, every writer faces the challenge of writing quality along with all of that quantity.

The writers who fail in this task are accused of 'word-padding', which is also known as the meritless use of extraneous and lengthy words with the stated goal of increasing one's page count and giving the impression of competence as a provider of serious-- which is to say long --literary works.

See what I did there? Please don't do that with your stories. Your writing should either:
1. Advance the plot,
2. Endear a character,
3. Make a villain infamous, or
4. Establish an ambiance.

A way to accomplish all four of these goals at once is to incorporate a backstory into a conversation between or among characters. Ideally, you could introduce your protagonist and his or her sidekicks, friends, coworkers, or family members by having the villain's backstory come up in conversation. This has a few benefits.

First, it introduces your main characters, gives the reader a sense of what upsets the characters, and tells the readers why they should support the main characters against the villain(s).

Second, it allows you to tell the villain's backstory without resorting to the long-winded and arrogant tone, such as: In the dark land of *insert ominous name here* the dastardly and feared Lord/Ruler *ironic or fitting name here* perfected his wickedness against the innocent and helpless masses. *Insert long and dreadful list of atrocities.* Who would stop him?...*Proceed to first chapter, with idyllic hero figure*

An example of how to introduce your villain and hero without resorting to boring exposition is this. Consider a science fiction story, where all the characters must cooperate on a decades-long mission on a space ship. Your main character and his friends could be having lunch in the cafeteria, and discuss--over their bland rations--how pushy and irritating the ship's psychiatrist is. "He's supposed to help us acclimate," one crewmember might complain, "not make us consider using an airlock without a space suit to escape a session with him!"

Have the characters argue whether the psychiatrist is actually that bad, then discuss what--if anything--they can do about it, and decide whether to confront the psychiatrist directly, mention the problem to the ship's captain, or refuse to attend the mandatory sessions. No matter what the decision, it will convey where your characters stand, how bad the villain of your piece is, and give a sense of what limited options are available to them as the plot of your story progresses.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Prompt: Confusion at the Convention

Use the post below this one, "Making the Boring Bearable" to expand on this prompt about a person at a convention.

I ran from room to room, trying desperately to find the "Understanding Leadership" class before it started. Behind every wrong door, I found more people like me: frazzled, frustrated, and bored out of our minds. Finally, I found the right room, opened the door, and groaned. The lights were that faltering fluorescent kind that always gave me a headache...and this was scheduled to be a three-hour-long class!

Making the Boring Bearable

When you write about a boring event, the temptation is to skip that scene entirely, both as a writer an as a reader. Who cares about your character's commute to work, or the mind-numbing lecture on plate tectonics that they attended at the beginning of the novel? If these scenes don't link to the plot or establish your characters in some meaningful way, I recommend cutting the scene and starting somewhere more exciting.

However, if the vital clue to the entire mystery happens best in a boring setting, buried among jargon or your best to express the boring scene in an intriguing way. Here are a few ways to accomplish that:

1. Give details about the setting -- Everyone has a friend who will complain at length about an experience. "The conference dragged on for forever! They had us crammed, twenty people in a nine foot by nine foot room, with no windows and no air conditioning. When I got up to use the ladies room, my skirt snagged on the chair. Now it's ruined, and I'm going to bill the conference for it!"

Note: If you don't have a friend like this, your writing may be limited somewhat, but your mental health is probably better.

2. Give details about the other people in the scene -- In the conference example, does the lecturer have a monotone voice, or call on the audience to frequently with trivial questions? Do other attendees feverishly take notes, or do they doze in the back row? Is the cafeteria staff friendly and generous, or mean-spirited and stingy with the portion sizes? This information, even more thean the setting details, will help your reader experience the boring scenes better, because the details about fellow attendees, teachers, waiters, and the occasional interloper will make the experience more relatable.

It will also leave your reader feeling relieved that none of their similar experience have ever been that bad.

3. Give emotional details about your main character -- So, your main character is stuck at this boring conference, with bad food and no AC in the middle of summer in Louisiana. How does your main character deal with that? Is she indifferent, simply putting in the effort because her boss expects her to? Or does she make the best of it, networking with fellow attendees to arrange a pool party after the lectures? Is she angry about being required to attend, or distracted because a family member is having elective but dangerous surgery while she's at the conference?

If it helps, think of the setting details as the bass beat, holding the whole scene together, the other people as harmonies that make the scene more interesting, and your main character's thoughts and emotions as the primary melody that sets the scene's pace and course.

Do all of this, and not only will the boring scene become more interesting, but you may also subconsciously write more hints about later plot points into the scene, like:
A.    a poster in the hotel lobby of an entertainer who turns out to be the bad guy,
B.     another attendee who comments about the suspicious behavior of the bellhop, or
C.     your main character’s emotional state making her choose a different option than she normally would.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Prompt: Cursing the Grindstone

Have you ever had one of those days at work? Try writing about it, but change details so that no one gets offended or sues for libel. Pick up where this prompt leaves off. Should the character quit, pass projects off to coworkers, continue work, or pursue some other course of action?

He had a theory about work. It wasn't scientifically proven, the subject of an in depth study, or anything like that. As he stared at his desk, though, the anecdotal evidence in this theory's favor grew yet weightier.

His theory was that the work in his inbox multiplied geometrically in relation to how much work he discarded, tossed, or shoved into the outbox. Of course, with logic like that, there was only one rational thing to do...

Writing about Work

I do not recommend writing about your coworkers. For one thing, casting your boss as a villain won't earn you a promotion, and for another, revealing your coworkers' embarrassing secrets as character traits will lose you the annual popularity contest.

However, writing about work in general terms can be a very rewarding tool. Use unimportant details about your workplace as the characteristics of places that your characters visit. Does your main character's office have an ocean view, or a view of a brick wall six inches from the glass pane? Does your fictional office have a water cooler? If so, do people tell rumors around it, or do they pick the second floor bathroom, and why?

Also, use your working experiences to address the universal truths about employment. For example: Is overtime worth the effort? How can your main character get credit for a project without ostracizing others, or avoid catching blame for something someone else did?

See the prompt above for an idea on how to get started.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Bookend Prompt: Characters in Transition

Whether it's moving to a new house or simply to the next class, characters usually need to move in order to keep a reader's interest. In the bookend prompt below, fill in what it takes for the character to get from Point A to Point B. See the post below on transitions if you want more ideas!

Left Bookend: I was perfectly comfortable where I was. No, seriously...and I would have stayed that way, I'm sure, if she hadn't come along.
Right Bookend: Some people say that the journey is the point, not the destination. We'll just have to agree to disagree on that one.

How to Write Transitions

Transitions are delicate to write because you need to help the reader move from one scene or chapter to another (or within a scene, but to a new location). The easiest approach is to forego transitions altogether. However, I do not suggest that approach, because if you do that, all of your scenes will be static and stagnant, and each scene and chapter beginning will feel disjointed from the rest of the story.

Other approaches include:
1. Using a theme, or
2. Connecting dialogue to the next setting or action

1. Use a theme -- In this approach, all of your chapters might end similarly. For example, my complete novel (The Promethean Remnant), the main character changes locations with every chapter. For the first few chapters, I describe in detail exactly how she travels from one place to another. After the third chapter, though, I understand that the read knows what is happening, so I am able to make less detailed references to the type of travel, usually just mentioning the beginning of it and then cutting to the next chapter.

2. Connect dialogue to the next setting or action -- This approach can be corny if done poorly, or brilliant if done well. In the novel that I mentioned above, at the end of one chapter a supporting character explains to the main character where they are going next. However, he describes the place in very general, evasive terms. By the end of his speech, (hopefully) the reader shares the main character's annoyance, and their curiosity propels them into the next chapter.

You can also do this more subtly, such as ending a scene with two people in an office talking about their annual hunting trips, and then having the next scene or chapter take place at a hunting lodge, or out in the wilderness. Transitions like that help connect the entire story, making it a more cohesive experience for the reader.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Prompt: How to Write Quandries

Read the following prompt, and write what comes next. Is the problem a literal ship or something else? See the post below this one for hints on how to write about dilemmas.

Prompt: "I'm telling you; that ship has sailed. Look, you can be on deck, below deck, or keelhauled underneath it, but I assure you that this is happening."

Presenting Dilemmas Convincingly

When presenting your characters with dilemmas, it is important to remember 3 things about dialogue: 1. Stay in the time in which your story is set.
2. Stay in character.
3. Show the dilemma vividly.

Rule 1: Stay in the right time -- The same dilemma can be stated countless diferent ways, depending on your setting. Take a look at the following example...
Modern Day:
"I have a bad feeling about this. We've got no idea what's down there!"
"Tis a dank and murk-filled depth to explore,
what dangers lurk there can scarcely be ignor'd"
(Note - Well, I never claimed to be a playwright, did I?)

The exception to this rule is if your story has time travel. It is likely that a World War II fighter pilot would speak differently than the modern-day Nebraskans he meets when his plane slips from being over Germany in 1944 to over the Great Plains today. In fact, having the pilot speak of music from the 80s would be anachronistic and distracting to the readers.

Rule 2: Stay in character -- No two people would state a dilemma in exactly the same way, despite what you may have seen in bad horror movies. Even if they are from the same time, people with different cultures will speak of situations differently.

For example, when someone is talking and then suddenly goes off topic, you might ask what happened, or comment that they sounded confused. My brother would say, "You jumped several tracks," in a reference to the idiom 'train of thought', whereas my father would tease the speaker about going on a "Hartonian Tangent". (He had a friend in high school, last name of Hart, who spoke randomly more often than not.)

If even a father and son don't necessarily use the same speech patterns, then you should definitely consider how differently people from varying countries, social classes, or cultures would phrase dilemmas.

Rule 3: Show the dilemma vividly -- Describe the unfortunate choices before your characters in detail, so that the reader knows why they make the decision on which they eventually settle.

For example, if your characters are exploring a haunted house, and someone gets trapped, some people can stay with the trapped person, bring them food and water, and other people can go for help. Presenting this as one character saying, "So, who's coming with me?" doesn't do this choice justice. Try having one of the characters start to hyperventilate and shout about how this is the point in the movie where the split up and people start dying.

That way, when the characters do make a decision, the reader will have a sense of dread regardless of which option is chosen. This will add depth, conviction, and characterization to your story, not to mention a healthier word count!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Bookend Prompt: Heist on the London Underground

See the post below this one for some hints on how to fill in the gaps between the bookends of today's prompt.

Left Bookend: The owner wasn't supposed to chase her into the station, the thief thought frantically as she dodged and weaved to put more of the lunch-hour crowd between her pursuer and herself. She knew that he had insurance on this thing.

Right Bookend: The thief grimaced as she heard the automated reminder to 'mind the gap'. Disappointed, the thief slipped up the escalator and thought that at least she had gotten away.

Writing the Treacherous Middle Story

I have admitted on this blog that writing the beginning of a story is difficult. You need to catch the reader's attention in a way that has not been tried before, which becomes more impossible each year and with every newly-published book.

Writing the middle of the story is even worse, in a way. By this point, the reader has committed to finishing your book, but a truly boring, bad, or unconvincing middle can still make them regret buying your book...and lose you their future purchases of your second, third, and umpteenth novel.

Recently, when talking with some of my friends who also write, I complained that every decent story follows similar guidelines. Something happens to the main character (who we're supposed to admire), the main character reacts, and then plot ensues. That is what you need to accomplish convincingly in the middle of your story - go makes some plot points happen!

However, as simplistic and general as that sounds, it is not helpful to a writer in the midst of a story. You have a main character, a foil or villain, friends and henchmen, a breathtaking setting, and enough secondary characters to make casting directors cringe at the prospect of your book one day becoming a film...but now you need the plot, encounters, adventures, setbacks, and other events that build tension and camaraderie for your audience. They should be cheering for your main character to win, and throwing taunts and tomatoes at the villain of your story. There are 3 ways to garner such involvement from your readers:

1. The world-changing approach -- Make every way station, pit stop, or bus depot vitally dangerous and important to your main character. For example, if your story takes place on the London underground, then every time the train doors open, your readers ought to wonder - and maybe fear - what will enter next. Say that your main character is a thief. Maybe she boarded the train to make her escape, but at each station, different people board and accost her. One newcomer could be a rival thief; the next would be her ill-gotten property's actual owner, and the third a police officer, called to quiet the incessant fights occurring in the thief's car.

The downside to this style is that it could exhaust your reader. The style of writing is evident in those novels that you finish in one sitting, despite their length.

2. The comedy of errors approach -- Keep all events light, humorous if possible. In keeping with the London underground example, your heroine would still be accosted, but not at every turn. Maybe in trying to avoid her thieving rival, she stumbles across an unrelated problem that only she can solve. (I.e. A man has just dropped an engagement ring down a grate. The thief/hero retrieves it for him.) The other encounters could be minimized also, in that the stolen property's original owner might not know that your main character is the thief, and the police officer could be interrupted by a more serious crime, and leave without arresting her.

The problem with this approach is that, though it is less intense and easier for the reader to handle, your audience may wonder why they're reading it at all.

3. The balanced approach -- Mix the serious encounters with the lighter ones, alternating randomly. Have the rival thief steal the hapless man's engagement ring. Then, while the hero/thief is stealing it back, the owner shows up with a police officer. The hero/thief grabs the engagement ring from her rival before he runs away from the authorities. When the police officer searches the hero/thief, though, only the engagement ring turns up, because her rival lifted the object that she stole earlier!

This mixture of intense and funny moments will reveal more facets of your characters. (For example: How does the hero/thief react when facing her rival as opposed to when she is faced with a blunt accusation from her most recent victim?)

Mixing the content of your middle story also gives the reader a chance to properly enjoy the characters, without either feeling rushed from scene to scene by the urgent pace and intensity of the plot, or feeling bored at the consistently whimsical and inconsequential events. Pick the style that works best for your story.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Writing Prompt: Seconds, Please?

Instead of focusing on the main character in this prompt, write what the secondary one says in reply. Why is the teenaged employee the only one at the registers? Is everyone else out sick? Was there an avalanche that prevented everyone but him from coming into work? Use your imagination!

She stood in line, glancing out the store's front window as she transferred the grocery basket back to her other arm. What was taking the cashier so long? It wasn't like this was rocket science! She had more important places to be, and she should have been there ten minutes ago. Sighing in exasperation as she finally reached the front of the line, she looked around at the other cash register stations while she unloaded her canned soups and yogurt.
In that one quick glance, she realized why the line had moved so ridiculously slowly. "'re the only one here, huh?" she asked the frazzled teenaged cashier.

How to Write Secondary Characters

If you know how to write a likeable (but not perfect) hero, a dastardly yet sympathetic villain, and a reasonably complex plot, you probably think you're set. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Unless your story involves only two characters (i.e. the hero and the villain) stranded somewhere desolate (such as a desert island, abandoned space station, or the Arctic Circle) are going to have secondary characters.

Secondary characters will share attributes with both your hero and your villain in varying degrees. For example, if your hero's attempts to arrive at work on time are thwarted constantly by the taxi driver who intentionally takes the route through heavy construction, then that secondary character has very few redeemable qualities.

However, on the scale of evil plans, postponing your hero's arrival at his job is far from earth-shattering. (After all, your hero could always hail a different cab further down the street, call the Better Business Bureau on the taxi driver, or take public transportation instead.) The villain, on the other hand, will be nearly impossible to avoid. Maybe the villain is your hero's boss, or a new client...someone that the hero needs to deal with.

When it comes to secondary characters, effort equals results. Sure, you can stop at describing the secondary characters by their job or their appearance, but then those characters will not have as meaningful an impact as possible. (I'm guilty of this in one of my novels - the main character's coworkers, friends, and neighbors are all practically non-existent. I mention that they do, in fact, exist...and then I get on with the plot that matters instead of ever meeting them.)

If, instead of glossing over your secondary characters, you let your hero have lengthy conversations with his waitress at the coffee shop, maybe she will warn him when she notices a car parked outside the shop, and thugs watching for when he arrives and departs. Knowing that information, your hero can dodge the thugs, fight them, or the waitress can show him a side exit. Then, the villain (boss or client) will not be able to use those thugs to track the hero's movements.

By simply giving your secondary characters the literary time of day, they can progress the plot and reveal your hero's personality at the same time. I've used a rather boring example here, but apply these principles to your own stories, and see if it helps!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Help Wanted!

Am I answering all of your most important and desperate fiction-writing questions? If not, email me at this address ( with the topics you feel I'm neglecting. I'll try to answer each question as quickly and fully as possible! =)

Bookend Prompt: Sympathy for your Villain

In keeping with the post below about writing believable villains, use this bookend prompt to write a short story (or character analysis, or novel) to create a sympathetic villain or villainess. This is good practice for considering your villain as more than a moral opposite to your hero. A good villain does that too, but he or she has an entire existence outside what they do to your main character.

Use the two-part prompt in any order, as long as one of the bookends is at the beginning of your writing, and the other is at the end. Good luck, and have fun writing!

Left Bookend: I told them not to do that. They should have listened to me.
Right Bookend: Someone had to; can I help it if that 'someone' was me?

Writing Believable Villains

One of the most disappointing things about reading a book or watching a television show is when the villain has no depth to their character. The most apt examples I can think of are the westerns or police procedurals from the 1960s, where the bad guy does amoral and/or illegal acts simply because he/she is insane.

They never tried to explain how the villain was insane. Was it an anti-social personality disorder? Multiple personalities? A superiority complex with violent tendencies? Nope, the explanation always stopped short at one word: crazy.

While I will acknowledge that people read stories to get away from their normal lives, the plot still needs to make some sense. For those who appreciate a good mystery novel, 'crazy' is a good start on motive for the villain, but it needs to be explained with some debate about nature versus nurture, a macabre backstory, or a shared history with the main character/hero/heroine.

How can you avoid writing this overused stock character as the villain of your piece? Here's my advice:

1. Villains are people too - It sounds silly, but try to think of your bad guy(s) in more than one dimension.  Villains have good traits as well as faults, so while the story may require that you emphasis the faults, don't forget the puppy that your villain rescued from the pound, or that they give blood a few times a year. Just because they are the foil to your main character doesn't mean they need to be evil to everyone all of the time.

2. Villains commit villainy for a reason - Villains have a reason for their actions. We hear the reasons ad nauseum in various stories' monologues, but the reasons are there nonetheless. If your villain is a businessman, show the meeting where he/she is arguing for polluting the Everglades because it's kinder than dumping toxic waste into a hospital's water supply. Or, have the scene where the villain snaps at an aide because they just finished a stressful business call. Without reason, your villain cannot justify (or rationalize) their actions.

3. Villains aren't perfect - This is an important fact to keep in mind, especially if you want the villain to lose. In keeping with the 'villains are people' point, villains have fears and insecurities just like the heroes in your writing. However, the villains probably do a better job of hiding those fears and insecurities, which means that the heroes have some investigation to do before they can achieve their victory.

Who knows, maybe in the process of all that investigating, the hero will discover that he and the villain have more in common than they first thought. That could lead your story down one of two paths: A. If they aren't so different, maybe they can be allies instead of enemies. Or (more likely), B. The hero will simply feel really bad about having to stop the villain in the end.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Writing Prompt: A Conversation Overheard

After reading the italicized lines below, write what this character overheard. Where were they when the heard the conversation? What was the content of it? What is this character like? Is he or she a gossip, a spy, or simply curious? And for the sci-fi fans out there, is the use of the word 'invisible' a literal condition, or a reference to being unobtrusive? Good luck and have fun!

"I didn't intend to eavesdrop. No, really. People always doubt me when I say that. Can I help it if I'm practically invisible?

At any rate, I didn't mean to overhear their conversation...but I'm glad that I did."

Description Writing: The Devil is in the Details

Some writers struggle to fill the page and reach that 75,000 to 85,000-word mark. Others must cut words from draft after draft for fear of the presses quitting in protest before their books are produced. However, the amount of detail is not nearly as important as the quality of detail you put into your writing. As an example, I've included an excerpt from my unpublished novel "The Promethean Remnant" below:

Excerpt from "The Promethean Remnant" -

The palace's grandiose appearance, like a castle hidden away in a dark, remote ravine, convinced Celesta that she had at least one viable suspect in whatever crime, insult, or indiscretion she had been called in to investigate.

Grinning, Celesta confided in the nymph as they walked toward the palace, "Trust me on this...the butler did it."

The nymph, who was walking beside Celesta as they approached the sea-goddess's palace, looked at Celesta with something like confusion - or maybe it was boredom. The nymph's soft features could either be extremely expressive (as they had been back in the apartment, when the nymph was considering Henry) or her expression could be as still and blank as water on a windless day, making her nearly impossible to read.

"Butler?" the nymph inquired in a voice that sounded like a summer brook. "What is that?"

Did I need to include that much detail about both the palace and the nymph's expression? Probably not. Those details have nothing to do with the larger plot arc of this novel. However, by explaining that the palace looked like a castle, it allows Celesta to jump to the corny conclusion that 'the butler did it'.

Explaining how fluid and un-human the nymph's feature are reinforces the fact that, while the nymph knows the Greek pantheon well, she probably has never read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. That simultaneously gives the reader something familiar (of course the butler did it!) and shows the reader and the main character that pop culture references will likely be useless for most of the pantheon and their courtiers.

In conclusion, there's nothing wrong with adding details to your writing, as long as they are the right details. Do your descriptions pull the reader into the world you are creating? Or do the details have your reader using your story as the best-known cure for insomnia?

Details and descriptions should deepen the experience of your story without lengthening to the point of boredom. It is a fine line, and one that you might not even notice until you allow someone else to read your writing. My recommendation is to write in as many details as you want...but be prepared to remove the excess to improve the overall quality of your writing.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Bookend Prompt: Write Dramatically

Consider the bookend writing prompt below. For those of you just tuning in, a bookend prompt gives the first and last lines, and leaves the rest up to you. You must use both lines, but they can be used in whatever order works best for your writing. The challenge for today is this: write dramatically.

What is the problem for the characters involved in this writing prompt? Are they arguing over where to go to dinner, or mounting an interplanetary expedition? You decide, and have fun with it!

Left Bookend: I never thought it would come to this.
Right Bookend: What am I supposed to do now?

A Word About Sequels

I'll try to avoid ranting on this subject, but I don't know how successful I'll be.

I just saw a sequel to a movie. The first movie was good--it had (1) quick, vicious action, (2) an uncertain but likeable demigod hero, (3) an obligatory love interest that managed to avoid most of the 'damsel-in-distress' cliches, and (4) a subtle but inarguably present pantheon of characters who ranged from good but self-centered to innately evil.

The sequel, on the other hand, had (1) quick, vicious action, (2) a demigod hero who hadn't grown as a character (no offense to the actor, as he carried the part strongly, but making someone a parent does not automatically imbue them with character growth), (3) the same love interest as before, but zero tension between them, and (4) a blatant pantheon of characters who were either good or evil...the only question was, which of these characters were redeemable.

My point is this: whether you're making a book, a movie, a graphic novel, or any other medium of story, please make sure that a sequel deserves to be written before you commit to it.

What makes a sequel good? Here are a few elements that matter to me:

A. Character growth: Unless your story works well because a character never changes, you need to have some evidence of a character growing and changing somehow.

In my completed story about the Greek pantheon, the mostly-human heroine changes even within the first novel. She starts out as exasperated but timid. She would chastize a nymph for coming to her apartment uninvited, but never dream of denying any of the gods or goddesses. By the end of the first novel, she is arguing heatedly with the entire pantheon. In the sequel that I'm working on, the heroine is established as a strong character, but now the gods and goddesses have more respect and less patience with her, due to what happened in the climax of the first novel. That impacts their interactions with her, creating a different ambiance for the second novel.

B. New plot: I know that some authors make a very good living at writing essentially the same story in each of their books.

However, even the most formulaic of authors has to change basic things about their plot, or risk boring their audience. For example, my story about the Greek pantheon will be a mystery series. While the premise of each book will remain the same (i.e. the heroine must search for answers on behalf of the pantheon), the goal of each book changes (i.e. the type of problem to be solved by her alters).

C. Comfortable constants: This may sound counterintuitive, given the ranting (sorry, I know I said I'd try not to) that has gone in under points A and B, but each sequel needs constants.

Having constants is important because, while the characters grow and the plots change, you need something for the readers to hold on to as 'normal' in your story. For my Greek pantheon story, those constants are that the heroine always lives in the same, small apartment over a bar, and her job as a teacher. Constants help your reader get their bearings quickly, so that they can proceed to enjoy the rest of the story. If you change absolutely everything at the beginning of your sequel, it will take the reader some time to adjust, and they may not like or enjoy the changes.

A final note: I love reading a good sequel. The previous three points are merely meant to illustrate some of the elements needed in order for your sequels to be worthy of the readers' attentions.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Writing Prompt: Victim or Villain?

In the tradition of the first few prompts, this is another that allows you to pick a direction. However, as the title implies, the directions are a bit more divergent than my usual prompts. Read the next few sentences, and the write either as though the character is a victim or is the villain of the entire piece.

She ducked behind a few sturdy crates, cringing as wood splintered off them from the forceful impact of a passing metal projectile. If she had known that her actions over the past few days would spark this sort of reaction, she might have approached this whole thing differently.

"Let me explain!" she shouted, but then heard several people preparing their weapons and running in her direction.

"Never mind," she muttered, and ran deeper into the warehouse.

The Dangers and Benefits of Backstory

If you're anything like me, you enjoy knowing every detail of your main character's life. An abundance of backstory can be a good thing, because it gives you lots of material to draw on, later in the story.

However, where writers (myself included!) run into trouble is when we want to tell the main character's entire backstory in the first chapter or two.

Don't get me wrong...I'm sure that your main character has a life story that would put Nobel Peace Prize winners and soldiers of fortune to equal portions of shame, but the reader doesn't want to hear every detail of it all at once.

Think of books you have read, where the story doesn't seem to get moving until the third or fourth chapter. If you go back and read those--that is, if you still own those books--you will probably find that the author spent those first two to three chapters helping the reader get to know the main character.

This sends one of two messages to a reader:
1. The author doesn't trust that the audience can handle having backstory and plot happen simultaneously.
2. The author feels a need to justify his or her main character's importance before any plot can ensue.

The first message will leave your reader insulted, and probably cause them to leave the book on the store bookshelf or in the online shopping cart, unpurchased and unread.

The second message indicates that the character is stronger than the plot. To some degree, you need a character who is strong enough to withstand the plot...but if you make the main character too impressive, then the plot will look laughably simple by the time if finally happens.

My recommendation? Start with a bang, not an explanation. As an example, I wrote the first 250 words of a novel. I haven't ironed out the plot points yet, or given my main character's entire life story. Here is the start of that novel:

Tserenia pounded on the chamber door frantically, hopeful that her urgent knocking would create enough noise to waken Zanral, but not alert her pursuers—her own family—to her presence.
“By the elements, Zan, if you do not let me in, I will splinter this door and use you as a pincushion!”
The door inched open a crack, and Tserenia saw Zanral’s face—strong, square jaw, but tired eyes. Very little of his weariness was due to the late hour, Tserenia knew. Zanral’s status in this castle was something they had commiserated over, and the reason that Zanral would either gladly help her escape or eagerly turn her in.
“You are as polite and genteel as ever,” Zanral remarked dryly, and then yawned.
“My bearing is not the issue,” Tserenia whispered as she glanced down the hall, either hearing or imagining footsteps closing in. “My magic is the problem.”
“Are you saying that splintering this door is beyond your abilities?” Zanral asked jokingly. “It was an impressive claim. I must remember that tactic.”
Briefly, Tserenia wondered whether Zanral meant using his own elemental magic to break doors, or the art of bluffing. Rather than waste time clarifying, though, Tserenia explained, “No, my other ability. Zanral, they know about my unnatural studies, and I am in danger.”
Tserenia took a deep breath, the words still strange to her, even as she admitted, “My family discovered that I am a necromancer, and now they are trying to capture me. Hide me, please!”

While I would have loved to explain exactly how Tserenia knows necromancy, what her relationship with Zanral is, given an anecdote about the people who are chasing her, and explained just what type of spell has kept them from catching her...all of that can wait until later.

The important thing to do with a beginning is this: begin!

I know it sounds simple, but getting a story off to a running start is a real challenge. Remember to start with some sort of action. A fight, a debate, a conflict...anything will do, whether it's a martial arts contest to a character agonizing internally over what to wear the first day of work. Just make sure to grab the reader's interest as soon as possible.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Writing Prompts for March 29, 2012: I'll Give You the Beginning and the End...the Rest is Up to You!

Here is a bookend prompt for you to consider. A bookend prompt is (as far as I know) something I created. It is comprised of two prompts. You should use both, though you can use them in either order. Use one as the beginning of your writing and the other as the last line of your writing.

Left Bookend Prompt: He had all the answers.

Right Bookend Prompt: Wait...what just happened?

So, what do you envision between those? A know-it-all scientist who discovers that the laws of physics aren't always accurate? Or maybe a boyfriend who thinks he know what his girlfriend expects of him...only to be surprised by something she does.

Remember, you can also reverse the prompts, so that the story starts with confusion and ends with your character feeling assured of his own knowledge. Good luck, and keep writing!

How to Stage Your Characters' Arguments

One of the best ways to generate tension and conflict among your characters is to have them argue with each other.

I know that in movies, action seems like the safer course, but once the fighting is over, everything reaches a new status quo rather quickly. There is a victor, a vanquished, or the two sides fight each other to a stalemate...those are your basic options.

An argument, on the other hand, can reveal things about your characters that even you hadn't realized yet. For example, in the scene I have been writing for the past few days, one character (Seff) has to convince two other people (Kirth and Vestra) that he has an urgent message; their keep is about to be besieged.

That sounds important enough that Kirth and Vestra ought to believe Seff, right? Unfortunately, Seff is from a country that Kirth doesn't trust and Vestra doesn't know much about, so they are doubtful of Seff's truthfulness.

In this same argument, Kirth and Vestra need to convince Seff that there is a danger from another place...a world that none of them even knew existed until a few days earlier. Consider that this is set in the dark ages, that Seff is from an insular society, and that his country is constantly battling Kirth's--you can see why there's a significant level of disbelief going on throughout this conversation.

Another way that an argument is better than a physical fight is that it makes the characters deal with each other. Rather than simply having your characters trudge from plot point to plot point, this gives them the opportunity to discover what other people in their world care about. What angers Vestra? What would push Kirth to violence? How much does Seff really care if these two believe him? An argument has far-reaching consequences...anything from hurt feelings for the next few chapters to outright war over a misunderstanding.

A final element to consider once you have your debate points lined up, is the setting. In my example, the argument occurs in a desert, right after Seff has tried to attack Vestra. (Kirth intervened, saving her, but now Seff needs to explain himself. It's a long story, so I'll let you know when the book is finished.)

This argument would not have had the same effect if it had occured in the garden of a castle, or in Seff's homeland (or in Kirth's country, for that matter). The austere, harsh setting of the desert magnifies their argument, because the longer they stop to argue, the worse their situation will become. After the brief fight and protracted debate, will there be enough water for all three of them to reach an oasis? Is this an argument that can be settled quickly, or are they better off to table the discussion until they arrive at Kirth and Vestra's keep?

When writing up your arguments, consider these 3 things:
1. Which characters are involved?
2. What are the rules about arguing? (Are there traditions that need to be observed, or does the person with the loudest voice win?)
3. Where is the argument happening, and how does that affect the argument? (For example, the same argument would happen in whispers if it occured in a library. On a soccer field, shouts would be more acceptable.)

Have fun writing, and let me know if this was helpful to you. Thanks!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Writing Prompt for 3/28/2012: Sentient Technology or Annoying Pet?

Do you prefer stories about malicious technology, or pets who know their owner's every pet peeve? Take either view, and expand on the few sentences I have written below:

If the phone would have just stayed where she put it, she'd have been out the door by now. But no...the insufferable contraption had untethered itself from the wall, waltzed across the bedroom, and made a nearly-successful escape attempt through the drain in her laundry room.

Either that, or her cat had moved it.

How Much Time Should You Spend Writing?

Are you a writer who enjoys working uninterrupted for hours or even days at a time? Or, can you only concentrate on your story for ten-minute bursts?

Either way, here is how I make the most of the time I have.

Usually, the amount of time I have to write in is the precise opposite of how much I want to write! When I have hours of free time, and no pressure, I cannot get the words onto the page or onto the screen. On the other hand, when I have no time at all -- or, more commonly, when I'm somewhere without any means to write -- that is, of course, when inspiration strikes.

Rather than fighting the inverted relationship between my time and my creativity, I have decided to work with it. When those moments of unexpected genius occur, I jot down whatever I can. If I don't have the time to expand on the poignant scene or surprising bit of humor, I simply write down a basic outline of it. Which characters are pivotal to this part? Would adding another character or changing the setting make it even better?

Then, I save up those scraps of frenzied inspiration and write more about them during the times when I have nothing but time...literally, even to the exclusion of having the will to write, the inclination to sit still, or any grandiose delusions about my creativity.

The result? I manage to share the more creative and interesting parts of my writing, making them stretch to fill pages and chapters, instead of just the paragraph or two that I somehow scribbled down semi-legibly while being jolted on a train.

My advice for today is this: write whatever you can, whenever you can...and save everything. Remember that partial scene involving a wolf with a fear of heights being trapped on the roof of an apartment building? Well, it probably doesn't look like much now, but give it some time to grow.

Come back to write it when you recognize one of your own fears, when you see a wolf at the zoo, or when you get locked out during a cold day. Experience will add depth and detail to your writing, even if you think your genre can't possibly relate to the everyday or the mundane.

Good luck, and keep writing!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Welcome to How to Write Fiction in Your Pajamas

In the days of big-name authors and imposingly-successful publishing houses, the mere idea of writing fiction can seem overwhelming and intimidating. This is the blog that says anyone can write whether you're new to writing or experienced, take a peek at the articles and hints on this blog.

I will provide writing prompts to get your writing started, information about literary events in the Washington, DC area to help you network, and dilemmas from my own writing to show solidarity with all the other aspiring authors who read this blog. There is even a section (over there -->) where you can write in and give advice about writing...just in case I've missed anything.

Look around the website, and if you want a different type of material added, let me know. I can be contacted at (For those of you who know which Shakespearean play that address is from, kudos!)