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!)