Tag Archives: writer’s craft

Your Mind, Unleashed

“Where do you get your ideas?”

It’s a common question, and different writers have different ways of answering it.  Some resort to philosophical or metaphysical discussions, other take up the defensive behind humorous quips.  The truth is, it’s a very difficult question, and there isn’t any one-size-fits-all answer.  There are as many answers to that question as there are writers.

I have shared my own methods for rationally generating ideas (Ideas: A Practical Exercise and Sparks) but I have to admit that a lot of the best ideas don’t come during the rational question & answer process I use most of the time.  They are like Eureka! moments and they come unbidden and often at inconvenient times.

What do you do when you’re waiting to fall asleep at night?  Or washing the dishes?  Or driving somewhere familiar with the radio off?  For me times like this are when I “take the reins off” my own mind and let it wander.  I start thinking about my latest project without any specific question or problem in mind.  And quite often some idea that may at first glance seem crazy will come out of the process.

Some of them are still crazy at second glance.  But the majority of the time there is something I can use there–something that makes the story better, something that often takes it in directions unexpected even to me.  This is part of what makes writing so exciting and unpredictable.  You can never really tell where the lightning will strike, or what it will leave behind when it does.

We live in a very structured world, with our time divided neatly into days and hours, and somebody always more than happy to tell us what we should be focusing on at any given moment.  We are very accustomed to directing our minds and our thoughts where we think they should go.  I’m here today simply to remind you there is value in letting your mind off of the leash from time to time.  You may be surprised what it brings back to you.

Writing and Portkeys

Do you read or watch Harry Potter?  Because I’m about to make what may well be an annoying analogy:

A good story is like a portkey.

At this point you must figure you know what I’m going to say next.  I’ll say something like, a good story is like a portkey because they both transport you to new places, or something hokey like that, right?

Right?

Well, actually, no.  That is certainly a fine argument, but it’s not the argument I am going to make today.  Today, leaving all abstract concepts of stories as transportation behind, I would like to focus more specifically on how Rowling described the way using a portkey felt. Remember that?  It first showed up in Book 4, and it was pretty vivid if my memory serves.  She described the feeling of something hooking Harry right behind the navel and dragging him along in a breathless rush that he couldn’t stop or control.  Of course, those aren’t her exact words.  But the gist was the same.

That exact sensation is what you get from a well-plotted, well-paced, well-told story.  Remember the last time you started reading a book and stayed up all night, even though you had to get up early in the morning, because you just couldn’t put it down?  You just had to find out what happened next.  No matter what.

Do you agree?  To me, this is one of the ultimate goals of writing, and also one of the ultimate tests.  Does your story reach out and drag the reader to the end in a breathless rush they can’t stop or control?

If not, how can you change it so that it does?

Oh, the dreaded Back Cover Text!

One of the benefits of indie publishing (yes, there are benefits!) is having total control over the entire process, and the appearance of your finished product.

Of course, this leads us to one of the drawbacks as well.  Major publishing houses have copywriters who do back cover copy, and do it very well.  Most authors are not well-prepared to write their own copy, and many are too close to the work to do it well.  As an indie-published author, back cover copy is also something you have total control over.

Can I just say it?  That can sort of stink.  I’ve pulled my hair out a time or two over back cover text, and never been really happy with any of it.  In fact I became so completely unhappy with Concerto’s back cover copy that I recently decided to rewrite it.

Of course, the book is out there.  I’m done with it, and unless I decide it’s worth pulling it off the market for a few days to update the cover (Edited to add: which I did :), the original back cover text will remain.

But in attempting to rewrite it, I had to take a step back and think about what back cover copy really does, and how it should be written.  We’re writers.  There’s no reason we can’t write decent back cover copy, along with stories and books and everything else we write.  We just need to know what the rules are, because it’s very different from writing a novel.

I’d like to share with you what I learned.  You can use my results to decide whether my method is worth bothering with for yourself.

So to start, my original back cover text, with my apologies:

What if…
…you could work with the greatest violinist
in history?
…the greatest violinist in history was also
the chief suspect in his wife’s murder?
…a violent stalker terrorized you just outside
the reach of the law?

What if…
…the only person who could stop the stalker
…solve the murder
…and save your life…

…was you?

Join Chrispen Marnett on the journey of a lifetime as she unravels the layers of the past…
…love…
…lies…
…music…
…murder…
…to discover the truth about the Newton Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra and its international celebrity concertmaster, Alexis Brooks.

Okay, so there are some problems here.  Even I could see that, though I wasn’t immediately clear how to fix it.  It seems to be composed simply to take up a lot of space on the page, but its problems go deeper than that.  I think one of the reviews on Goodreads says it best:

…the synopsis on the back cover did not promise much…

Is she right, or is she right?

So I took a step back.  When you look at a book, probably the first thing you look at is the cover.  I like my cover, so we’re good there.  What’s the next thing you do?  If you’re like most people, you flip it over and check out the back cover text.  What are you looking for there?

This is an important question, though it seems obvious.  Missing this question is why my back cover copy was such a mess.  I had no grasp at all on why a person reads back cover text in the first place.

Back cover text needs to convey five basic things to be successful.

  • Who
  • Why
  • Where
  • What
  • How

I love these questions.  If you read my recent posts on Ideas, then you’ve seen my fascination with them.  They work here too.

Who–you must introduce your main character, and at least reference your villain.  You may also reference other supporting characters, like love interest or sidekick, depending on how strong a part they play in the story.  My main character is mentioned only in the last paragraph.  I suppose we assume the violent stalker is the enemy.  And there is a famous violinist in there somewhere…nothing is very clear about any of these characters, though.

Why–this is your primary conflict that drives your story.  Why is this story happening?  I suppose I would assume the primary conflict in the copy above is our protagonist vs the violent stalker.  Hard to be sure, though, since it’s somewhat hard to tell who the protagonist actually is.

Where–your setting.  Give a nod to where all this is happening, it makes a difference to your reader.  How much emphasis you want to give this really depends on the book you’ve got.  Setting can play a pretty major role in some genres.  If Concerto had been a fantasy or sci-fi novel, the setting would have required more explanation.  But in this blurb above–I feel like the setting is absent entirely.

What–it’s hard to explain, but this should reference your genre.  It’s the “what” happens to make it a romance, or a western, or a whatever.  This is where you put some spin on the ball, to angle it to your target readers.  I don’t know that there is anything in the cover text above that would angle this very strongly to suspense readers, or any other kind of reader, really.

How–this is your hook.  It’s how you are going to hold your reader’s attention–if you can’t hold them to the end of your blurb, you will never keep them all the way through your book.  Cite the danger, risk, or threat that raises the stakes and keeps the pressure on.

Keeping these things in mind, I took another stab at writing back cover copy for Concerto. I know I’m biased, but I think this is a more effective blurb:

“I see you.”

Three simple words from her telephone in the dead of night send violinist Chrispen Marnett’s life spiraling in directions she never imagined.  The chance to work with the greatest violinist alive drew her to Newton, but nothing could have prepared her for what she found there.  Terror lurks in unexpected places–a ringing phone, a late-night rehearsal, unexpected flowers.

And what could have prepared her for Alexis Brooks: symphony concertmaster, international superstar, and accused murderer?  Withdrawn and moody, Alexis is cut off from everyone around him; his colleagues in the symphony, his fans, even his own father.  Everyone from her mother to the Newton Police has warned Chrispen against Alexis, but as her own danger increases, he may be her only ally.

Join Chrispen on the journey of a lifetime as she fights for her sanity, her happiness, and her life.  To survive, she must unravel the layers of the past and learn the secrets the Newton Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra hides.

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)