Category Archives: writer’s craft

Sparks

Last time we talked about ideas, and how we might work a spark into an idea, into a story.

Today, let’s talk some more about sparks.

The spark, if you recall, is what we called that tiny seed, too small to even call an idea.  But with some care we can sprout it into an idea that we can work into a story.  In our last discussion, the spark was a single image.  Asking questions about that image helped to develop our story idea.

But what we didn’t discuss was where that spark came from.  You’ve got to have something to start with, no matter how small.

Sparks can come from anywhere.  In the last post I wanted an example, something intriguing, that would be good to further the discussion.  So I thought about it for a few minutes and that’s what I came up with.  Sometimes that will happen.

But if it doesn’t, it’s important to remember that the world around you is rife with sparks.  You may find sparks in things other people assign no importance to.  The crucial thing is to be prepared to catch them.  To push our analogy, any spark will fizzle and die if it isn’t caught and nurtured into a flame.

How do you catch them?  Here you have lots of options.  I always have a small memo-size notebook in my purse, and it’s handy to grab and jot notes in while I’m out.  You can also keep one on your nightstand in case you find something in a dream that feels like story fodder.

Most cellular phones these days have features that can be used for this.  You can use an application to write yourself a quick note, or send yourself an email with your thoughts.

Some people prefer to speak their thoughts.  I’ve known people who carried microcassette recorders, or their newer flash-memory-based equivalents, to catch these types of ideas.  You could even call your home phone and leave yourself a message!

The important thing is to make yourself a note of what caught your attention, and come back to it later when you’re ready to ask questions.  A particular bit of overheard dialog, a peculiar piece of action seen from afar–any number of ordinary things can spark an idea.  All you have to do is make sure you are prepared to catch them when they fly.

Ideas–A Practical Exercise

Lawrence Block once commented in one of his articles on writing–and I’m paraphrasing here–that the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” is misleading; it implies the writer is struck by an idea for a story, and from there everything is golden.

He’s right–the process of writing is an endless generation of ideas, one after the other.  Character development, plotting, backstory–all of them are nothing but the writer asking themselves questions and then dreaming up the answers, one after another, until the story is finished.

So, here you are, and you want to write a story.  But you’re sitting there with a blank page and nothing particular coming to mind to put on it.  Now what?

If you’re like most writers, you have a glimmer of an idea.  Maybe not a full-fledged story–not yet–but maybe a character, or a compelling conflict, or a bit of engaging business you want to use, or just a general thought of “I’d like to tell a story about this.”

First, we need to abandon the notion that the blank page–or empty Word document–in front of us at this moment is our story.  We’re going to do some work on this idea first.  This is the part of the writing process that to me is most like magic–starting with nothing and stringing stuff out of your head onto the page until you have a solid story.

Next, we need to abandon the notion that there are any “wrong” or “bad” answers.  As you work up ideas, you’ll be making up answers to your own questions.  Some answers you’ll like better than others.  Some answers will make you want to keep looking for a different answer 🙂  That is fine.  This is your story, the only one who decides what the right answers are is you.  The right answer is the one that leads to a story that you want to tell.

Let’s say I have in mind a particular image.  It’s not a whole story, but it’s compelling and I would like to turn it into a story.  I am imagining a woman, standing in front of her dresser, pointing a revolver at her reflection in the mirror.

This is my spark; the thing that’s making me want to write.  Your spark could be anything.  The process is always the same.  At the top of this blank sheet of paper, I am going to write out my spark.

Spark: a woman, standing in front of her dresser, pointing a revolver at her reflection in the mirror.

There are lots of questions I could ask here to start fleshing this idea out.  The old saws we learned in journalism class serve well:  Who?  What?  Where?  When?  How?

But the King of all questions is Why?  If you only get to ask one question, make it Why.  Why? is the question that will get you to the heart of things faster than any other.  I could ask Who and do a detailed character sketch of the woman with the revolver.  I could ask Where and go into great detail about the bedroom she’s in, or What and discuss the revolver.

But the first question I’m going to ask is Why?

Question: why is she pointing a gun at her own reflection?

This is where I start just making things up.  You’ve got to turn off your internal critic, the one who’ll happily inform you that all of your ideas stink.  Frankly, you aren’t looking for your internal critic’s opinion here.

You are looking for your own.  You are going to start making up answers, throwing them out there.  How will you know you have a good one?  You’ll feel it.  You’ll get shivers, or goosebumps, or you’ll just stare at your writing on the page and say “Wow.”

Answers: People usually point guns at things because they are afraid of them.  Or they want to eat them.

Is she afraid of her own reflection?  Maybe.  Maybe she is insane, and we’re demonstrating it here, with a gun in the dressing room mirror.

Or maybe her reflection really is dangerous.

That–that right there.  That is when I felt like I was onto something–something interesting, something scary–something I would want to write.  I’m on the right track there.

Given the same question, the answer that you react to may be different.  That’s fine–your story should be yours.

So I’ve got my first answer that I really like.  All of that other stuff above it is just harmless chatter.  When I’m done here, I can copy out the useful bits onto a clean sheet of paper so that all I have left is the good stuff.

What do I do now?

Of course!  I ask:

Question: Why is her reflection dangerous?

And I start making up answers until one clicks with me.  And then I look at that answer, and see what questions it prompts.  And at some point farther on down the page, I’m going to feel like I have enough material to start writing, so I will.  When I reach a point in the narrative where I feel like I need to know more to continue, I will come back to this paper and ask some more questions.

It’s perfectly possible to carry this idea out to something a story could be written from.  I may do that, if it would be helpful.  But if you’re struggling with ideas and are interested in the process, it would probably be even more helpful to give it a go yourself.

I’d love to see what you come up with.  I’m sure it will be awesome.

Heroes & Heroines

I’ve been thinking about something recently.  I’ve been thinking about some of the action in Redeemer of the Realm, my current work in progress.

Redeemer is a fantasy work.  Early on, there is a scene where a sword-wielding assassin breaks into our hero’s room.  Our hero, who is just becoming proficient with a blade, manages to defend well enough to stay alive, but sustains a pretty nasty wound in the process.

Later on, our hero gets mouthy with somebody bigger and meaner and mentally unstable, and gets pretty soundly beaten.  Very soundly beaten.

These scenes sound pretty standard, pretty much like anything you might read in any other fantasy novel.  So why are they being singled out?

Because in Redeemer of the Realm, our hero is female.  Now consider, this is fantasy–by definition the people in the story are bound by different societal and cultural conventions than our own.

But the readers–the readers are still bound pretty firmly by our societal and cultural conventions.  And in our conventions, violence toward women is A Very Bad Thing.

I agree with that, by the way.  I’m not arguing against that.

What I’m doing is raising an interesting dilemma brought up by a couple of views we hold in our society.  They don’t seem to directly contradict each other, but these couple of scenes in Redeemer–and some of the action in Concerto, especially, because it’s set here and now–show that there is at least one way in which holding both beliefs simultaneously can cause some reader discomfort.

  1. Women should be treated as equals to men
  2. Violence against women is bad

In the context of a story, these views do contradict.  When you read a story, you expect the hero to have a goal.  You expect him to meet strong opposition.  You expect him to fight hard, and not always win.  Things are never easy for the hero, and if for a short time they seem easy, it’s only because they are about to take a turn for the hellish.

Heroes fight hard.  Heroes get knocked down, and get back up again.  As many times as it takes.

But…when your hero is a female, what then?  I’ve seen in some writers a tendency to take it easier on their heroines than their heroes–the writers I’ve noticed doing that tend to be men, although that may be because I read a lot of male writers.  (For the record, I am female, which may be why I am giving the question thought.  I’m not sure of my own bias here.)

I thought about all of this when I first started The Music Mage (the book before Redeemer) and when I first started Concerto.  I don’t think it’s fair to make things easier on my heroines just because they are female.

My heroines fight hard.  My heroines get knocked down, and get back up again.  As many times as it takes.  They aren’t super-human, and they are often at a disadvantage against men who are bigger and stronger than they are, and many of their fights are not physical.  But they work hard for their goals, just as hard as the heroes.

I don’t claim to offer any answers here–just raising an interesting question.  What about you?  How do you treat heroes vs heroines in your writing?  How do you prefer them treated in your reading?

A Couple of Writing Exercises

On my website, I have a page of writing exercises.  I originally designed them for use in character development, but they have also proven useful for writer’s block.

Today I’d like to highlight a couple of my favorites.  Any of them can be useful, but these two reliably provide an interesting writing experience, and good insights when it’s all done.

  • Your protagonist and antagonist are each required to write a letter of introduction to your reader, describing themselves, their goals and motivations, and you.
    (This exercise gives you valuable insight into the way your characters think about and describe themselves)
  • Your protagonist and antagonist each write a letter to a friend or family member (or you!) about the other.
    (This exercise helps you gain insight into how your characters view their opposition)

Rules of Magic Part II–Book Recommendation #2

If you found the discussion of magic below interesting, know that I have just barely scratched the surface.  If you’re interested in further, deeper discussion of magic systems in fantasy, and how to make them believable, I have a couple further resources for you to check out.

Holly Lisle has been my go-to source for everything writing related for years.  This article is one of the first things of hers I read, and it really opened my eyes to how complex a topic magic can be, and how much more thought I needed to give it.

Fantasy Is Not For Sissies–Real Rules for Real Worlds

Around the same time, I bought my copy of Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy. Although magic is only a small part of what Card teaches in this book, it stood all my previous thoughts about magic on their head.  It taught me an entirely new way of thinking about what magic is and how it relates to the world you are building.  For me, it took the thought process that began when I read Holly’s article to the next level.

And you could do worse than to read the rest of the book, too.  It’s one of a handful of writing books that I have kept around for years after I first read them, and I still periodically pull it out and read it again.  I find something new to think about every time I read it.

Rules of Magic

Today I’d like to share with you a post I first wrote back in June of 2005.  Somewhere I have a full-fledged article I wrote that goes into this, if I can find that and it isn’t too repetitive with what’s already here, that may be worth posting too.

My first novel was a thriller/suspense.  Kind of strange, really, because I do most of my writing in the fantasy genre.  There are a few small paranormal elements in Concerto, but it isn’t fantasy the way Crystal Cave is, for sure.  Even Enemy in the Mirror, which is marketed as sci-fi, has a definite fantasy slant to it.  After the years working on The Music Mage, and now Redeemer of the Realm, I have spent a lot of time in fantasy.

So I’ve done a lot of thinking about magic, and it’s place in my works.  My views on magic are heavily influenced by Holly Lisle and Orson Scott Card, and by the mess I saw in my own writing before I defined certain things.  I have specific resources I can point to for anyone who’d like a more in-depth discussion of magic–that will be a post for another day.

For now, from June 2005:

We’ve talked before about the extra work that goes along with writing fantasy; the world-building and such that is in addition to the regular plotwork and so forth that any writer has to do to write in any genre.  One of those things that a fantasy writer must deal with is the rules of magic.

Almost all fantasy novels include magic of some type.  Whether it’s wizards wielding fireballs or commoners wielding enchanted weapons, fantasy worlds are rife with magic.  It’s part of the appeal of fantasy.  For many fantasy writers, it’s also part of their downfall, at first.

Because the fantasy writer gets to make all the rules, it’s easy to succumb to the temptation to start out with no rules.  Especially with magic.  Why should I have to make rules about magic?  It’s MAGIC, it’s supposed to be able to do ANYTHING.  That’s why it’s MAGICAL.

I disagree.  The magic in your fantasy world should always have limits and costs.  Often, for every magic you create you will want to create a counter, whether it is well-known to your characters or not.  But at the very least, limits and cost.

Why?  Well, think about it this way.  If your magic is all-powerful, capable of anything, and costs nothing to use, the first person to invoke it wins.  End of story.

“And Galdad the Great snapped his fingers and Hured the Evil, menace to all the free peoples of the worlds, was reduced to a small pile of smoldering ash.  Everyone cheered and they all lived happily every after.”

Ick.  If there are no limits and no cost, there is also no story.  Story is about conflict and struggle, and if your magic can do everything for you and there’s no reason not to use it, then there is not conflict, and no struggle.  No story.

So.  Limits.  Limits define your magic.  What can it do?  Perhaps more importantly, what can it NOT do?  If you want your characters to be able to summon spirits but not raise the dead, limit them.  If characters should be able to see the future but not scry what is happening right now somewhere else, you need a limit.  Maybe your characters really do have all-powerful magic, but they have to be touching their target.  Ach.  Limits allow your struggle to exist, by making sure your characters can’t just cast a spell and make everything wonderful again.

Cost.  A well-defined system of magic should have a price that is extracted for using that magic.  Unless you really do want your characters to be able to use magic all the time.  Sometimes, if your limits are strictly defined you can get away without a cost.  If a magician must use a wand or a staff to cast magic, then cost becomes perhaps less of an issue–if you don’t want him using magic you can separate him from his implements.

Usually, though, you will have a cost associated with magic.  Maybe it saps the user’s strength, maybe it takes hours, days, or even years off of a person’s life, depending on the magnitude of the spell.  Maybe sacrifices must be made.  Perhaps difficult to locate, expensive ingredients must be combined into a potion that is used when the magic is cast.  Cost allows your basic conflict to exist, by ensuring your characters don’t use magic to solve every problem they encounter.

There are many, many other things you must consider when designing complex, believable magic systems, but the two primary things are limits and cost.  Start with those and you will be well-equipped to pursue the others.

To Plot or Not to Plot, Part II

Back in June of 2005, I wrote a blog post called To Plot or Not to Plot (it’s reposted below for your convenience).  Almost six years ago, lots of discussions I was involved in revolved around different methods of writing.

And today?  Well, I can report that today these same types of discussions continue.  We have two sides here–call them the “seat-of-your-pants” and the “safety nets”.  Team Pants believes writing by the seat of your pants is the most fun, visceral, exciting way to write–no real upfront plotting, you just have an idea and sit down and run with it.

Team Safety Net believes in doing your homework up front–there are just some things you’re going to have to know to get a whole story on paper.  So do those things first, then sit down and have at it.

Almost six years ago I reported that I have written both ways.  At that time though, I was finding myself more on Team Safety Net than Team Pants.

And today?  Well, today I can report that I am pretty firmly entrenched in Team Safety Net.  I do see the value of just sitting down and writing for specific uses, like exercises.  But for “real” writing, no question.  Team Safety Net, hands down.

Why?

There are a couple reasons.  First, if you’re anything like me, a whole lot of the things you just sat down and started writing didn’t turn out.  Mostly they are abandoned.  There just isn’t enough there to carry that story to the end.  That’s the kind of problem that turns up a lot earlier if you’re doing your homework at the outset.

Second, it is my firm belief that writing something solid takes less time if you do the back-work upfront.  You may remember that The Music Mage started out with a vague concept and seat-of-the-pants writing.  And it certainly worked out.  But it took a long time to get there.  Revising Music Mage was interesting–I had a book where the first half was written seat-of-the-pants, and the second half was written with a more complete understanding of the story I was telling, and why I was telling it.

That first half was a lot harder to revise.  It included a lot of material that wasn’t relevant to the plot–because, at the point that I wrote it, I had no idea what the plot really was.  It included material that did matter, but was written from the point of view of non-viewpoint characters–because, at the point that I wrote it, I did not know whose viewpoints would matter.  The second half, by comparison, was a breeze.

Okay, but couldn’t that be because a book always starts to fall together better in the second half?  Maybe the difference didn’t have anything to do with how much background material was available when I wrote it.

I don’t think that’s the case.  I’m not ready to start revision on Redeemer of the Realm yet–I’m still working on the first draft–but I can already see this book does not have that problem.  Before I ever wrote a word on this book I knew where it was headed and why, and it shows.

The next question is always: “But doesn’t that take all the fun out of writing?”

Well, no.  See, here’s the thing.  What I have when I start out writing is a general, high-view road map.  I know I am going to go from Point A to Point B, and I have a general idea what the road is going to look like along the way.  I have a few specific scenes in mind that I know I want to put in there, and I have a few specific scenes in mind that I know must happen to get me from here to there.  But a lot of material is only discovered as you are writing.  You never plan every little thing that will happen in a book, and you’ll find out things–sometimes big things–as you are actually writing.  That never changes.  The difference in doing it this way is that all of that discovery and exploration happens in an established framework.  And that framework helps you to know which detours are worth exploring, and which ones are headed in directions you don’t want to go.

To Plot or Not To Plot

Lately in the conversations on my writing lists it seems there are two types of writers.  Those who like to sit down at the page and just start writing words till something happens, and those who plot and do background, then write.

Are both valid methods of writing?  Well, sure.  There is nothing to say that the book one of those writers turns out won’t be just as good as the other’s.  I do believe, however, that there will be a difference in the amount of time those books take.

There is a minimum amount of plotwork that has to be done on any story if it’s going to hang together, and have a point, and a logical series of events.  You can do that plotwork before you start, or while you’re going.  The trouble with doing it while you’re going is that you have to stop moving the story forward while you do it, and sometimes the things you find out while you’re doing your plot and backstory work will require changes, and sometimes flat-out removal, of things that were already written.

I’ve written both ways.  The Music Mage actually started that way, just writing scenes with only a vague story concept.  The characters I figured out as I introduced them, the magic surprised me as much as anyone else.  But then as I kept working, and the story kept evolving, and the plot became more complex, I had to stop and do my background work.  I had to figure out what exactly the rules of this magic were, what exactly the cost was to use it, what exactly the limitations were.  Some things that happened way before the story itself were becoming important, and I needed to know more about exactly what they were.  And when I finished, some of the stuff I found had to be worked in to the material that was already written.

It wasn’t all bad, of course.  A lot of things just fell into place like puzzle pieces, even though I hadn’t consciously planned them that way.  It is exciting to watch the plot develop and unfold.

Redeemer of the Realm has been totally different.  After doing the last half of the first book with everything plotted out and the background done, I couldn’t see starting the new book any other way.  So I did the outlining, the plot synopsis, and everything else I could think of before I started.  And the book is moving faster, a lot faster.

But even doing your homework first doesn’t mean you won’t occasionally have to stop and do more.  Maybe you didn’t figure out everything you needed to know, maybe there are new scenes that have occured to you that you want to work in.  For whatever reason, you may still find yourself stopping at times to go back to your notes, and make new ones.

So I guess the moral is that you can’t avoid doing your homework.  You can put it off, but in the end, if the book is going to make it, you’re going to have to get the dirty work done.

And so goes another lunch break…

 

Endings–A Practical Exercise

A while back I posted a blog entry on the old blog (reposted below for your convenience) about endings.  There is also a new article on my website (Endings) on the same topic.

So, taking into consideration all of the things discussed there, how can you be certain your ending is carrying your story’s weight?  I’m not sure there is a one-size-fits-all answer to that question, but here are some exercises that may help.  These are all things I conceived of myself, when working on a big story that encompasses several books, but still needs to be coherent & complete when it’s all said and done.

  • Exercise #1–Beginning, Ending, Change Worksheets

    In this first exercise, we’ll take a straightforward look at your ending.  You can do this whether your book is complete or not–if it is not yet complete, just use the ending as you currently imagine it.  Any problems with that ending will probably be shaken out as you work through this.

    We’re going to sit down with three sheets of paper.  On the first sheet, write “Beginning” at the top.  Now, list out the elements of your story as they stand at the beginning of the story.  You’ll want to include your main character’s situation, any important supporting characters’ situations, the main problem in the story and any secondary problems, the setting where we find your characters–etc.  Essentially you are summarizing the state of your fictional world in this list.

    On the second sheet, write “Ending” at the top.  On this sheet you will list out all of those same elements–only this time, you’re going to list out how they stand at the end of your story.  Everything you had on your first sheet should make an appearance here, plus any significant developments over the course of the story that must be handled in the ending.

    The third sheet should be labeled “Change”.  Up till now we’ve been making lists that are pretty automatic–all the material for them is already laid out in your manuscript or in your head, and you are just putting it down on paper.  This is the sheet that will require you to really think.  I’m about to ask you a question that you may find tricky.

    Look at the first item on your first sheet.  Probably your main character’s situation, right?  Now look at the first item on your first sheet.  It’s your main character’s situation at the end of the story.  What change is necessary to make this happen?

    When you have an answer for that, start your list on the third sheet.  Put a #1 on the top line, and list out any and all changes that are necessary to accomplish this ending.  (If this is confusing, don’t worry, there will be an example later.)  A single item on your beginning and ending lists may require several changes–that’s okay, just list them all out.  Then move on to the next item.  It will take some time.  Just keep going, I’ll wait.  🙂

    All done?  Good!  What you have now are cheat-sheets to your entire book.  Assuming the beginning is accurate as you have laid it on sheet 1, and your ending is accurate as you have laid it out on sheet 2, then sheet 3 contains the bare bones essential plot to get you from one to the other.

    This is crucial.  Sheet 3 is not the entire plot of your novel.  Of course not.  But Sheet 3 contains the essential things.  The things that must happen, for story reasons, for your ending to work.

    Now your work may be easy.  If all of the things contained on Sheet 3 are already in your plot, you are done here.  Your ending grows organically out of your story, and it makes sense.  Good job!

    If not, you have more to do.  If elements on the sheet are missing, these are areas where your ending will be weak.  It will not grow out of the story, because the things leading to it were not adequately explained.  You’ll need to look for ways to work these missing elements into your story.

    You may find, when you attempt to do that, that elements already in your story flatly contradict things that are on Sheet 3.  This is a bigger problem.  Basically, you are in a situation where, for your ending to make sense, a certain thing needs to happen.  But for your plot to work, that thing can’t happen.

    You have a choice here–something will have to change.  You can change the ending so that the missing element is no longer necessary.  You can change the beginning, so the missing element is already taken care of at the story outset.  Or you can change the plot, so that the missing element can be added without breaking the story.

    Whatever you choose, your end goal is a situation where Sheets 1 and 2 accurately represent your story’s beginning and end, and where everything on Sheet 3 happens in your story.  At that point, you can be reasonably certain you have an ending that follows logically from your story, that makes sense.

Good work!  A bit heavy for a blog post, though, eh?  My website has a page of examples to illustrate this. To see the examples, check out:

Endings–Examples

Endings

Here’s the thing: Endings.  Endings are the thing.  Endings are Every Thing.

At least when you are writing.  Or reading.

Ending is not the cherry on top.  Ending is so integral to your plot, you can’t separate them.  At least, not if you want to write anything anybody wants to read.

The Ending is what you’ve been selling the whole time you planned, plotted, backstoried, character developed, and wrote your Great American Novel.  A good ending won’t save a wretched story.  But a bad ending will unfailingly kill a good story.  The ending is why the reader just invested their valuable time reading your story, and if it stinks, then they’ve wasted that time.  Your ending has to be good, or your story is doomed.

So what do I mean by a Good Ending?  Does every story have to end with Happily Ever After?

No.  Of course not.  Good does not necessarily mean happy.  But it should be satisfying.  It should resolve the conflict, and tie up the main storyline and any secondary storylines you had.  The ending should grow organically out of the plot and the action of the story, not come screaming out of left field at the reader, who can find no other justification for it than the whim of the author.

Want to find out more about Endings?  Check out the new article on my website at

Endings