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.