Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Random Musings

I'll probably use that title more in the future. It works for posts like this. I don't have much to say today, but I thought I'd give an update on how my writing is going.

I had decided to split my time between working on my novel and working on my screenplay. Then I decided that was kind of dumb. Why not just work on the novel, get it done, and while I'm waiting for it too cool down for the first set of revisions, I can get started on my screenplay? Made sense to me, so that's what I've decided. I'm close--closer than I thought, really--to getting to the actual first draft of my novel. I have the rough outline done, meaning I have it structured, who the POV character is going to be for each chapter, and the basic idea of what each chapter is going to be about. I don't want to over-plot since that takes some of the fun out of the actual writing process, but I do want to know a bit about what's going on with each chapter before I start. I'm hoping I'll actually be writing by early next week, but I'll see how the rest of the outlining goes.

I had a couple of early mornings in the last couple of weeks thanks to short stories. Dreams woke me up somewhere around 5 AM both times, and I couldn't think of going back to sleep because these stories needed to get written. The first time was really kind of surreal. I had a dream where I was a writer in a class and I wrote a short story. I don't know how well the story was received in my dream because I woke up before anyone saw it. I rushed to my computer, turned it on, and fired up Word. A little while later I had the entire thing written. It was actually pretty easy since, in a weird, twisted way, I'd already written it. I knew the beginning, middle, and end before I even dragged my buns out of bed.

The second time wasn't as easy. This time it was more of your classic dream situation. I had the dream and woke up with the idea burning in me. I knew it wouldn't wait, so again I fired up the computer and Word and got typing. This time I didn't have the whole thing in my head, just a vague idea that I found really cool. I wrote 12 pages that day and 7 or 8 the next, so I guess it really needed to get out of my head (I'm usually a 3 or 4 page a day guy). I haven't looked at either story yet, but I think they're pretty good (I'll disagree with that when I read through them for the first time, but my trusty red pen will make 'em good).

That's it for today. Until next time, keep reading and/or writing!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Writing Short Stories

Today I thought I'd share how I write short stories. I have quite a few floating around on-line, and I've just been informed that I'll have another published sometime in 2009 (making that two I'm now waiting on). You can look in the December 2008 section of this blog (My Stories Pt. 1; Pt. 2; and Pt. 3) for examples of my work--all but two of my published short stories are represented there.

Basically my technique for creating these stories is quite simple. I don't plot, create characters, or usually even have an ending. I almost always simply have an idea that sparks my interest. When I get one of these ideas, I just start writing (or I write the idea down in my Story Idea Notebook for future creation). Sometimes the story just jumps out of my head and onto the paper and it's all I can do to keep my pen up to speed with my brain. Other time (most times!) I spit out a paragraph or two and then need to tinker with the idea. While this part can be frustrating, it's also the fun part of writing, in my humble opinion. Creativity can run wild. After I've run a few "What if?" scenarios through my head, I'm usually good to go--until I get stuck again and run through the process again.

If I can get my story moving, I don't usually think up an ending until I'm almost there. It's fun when I get to the ending and am surprised with how it turned out. Other times, if I'm having trouble getting through the story, yet it's an idea that still excites me, I will make sure I think up an ending so I know where my final destination is. Usually this helps me focus and get to the goal. If not, I'll put the story aside, move onto something else, and let my subconscious tackle the problem. If it really is a good story idea, it won't be too long before I can move back to it and finish up. If not, well, maybe I wasn't ready to get that story out. And that's the good thing about short stories--they don't take much time out of your writing life, so if you need to abandon one, you haven't lost months like with novels or screenplays, usually just hours (or sometimes, but rarely, days).

Basically that's how I write my short stories. I just get an idea and write it. I don't turn on my inner editor until after I've finished the first draft and start with the revisions. One thing I like to do while writing, in addition to playing "What if?" is to ask myself how I can amp up the strangeness factor. It's a sure way to get my creative juices flowing during the writing process. Other than that, I just write. Sometimes I finish in one sitting, sometimes it takes a few days, but I write.

I hope this inspires some with their own stories. On another note, those of you who have been paying attention (I don't know who is--feel free to comment on any article!) may notice I did not post an update on Saturday. I've decided to publish this blog only on Wednesdays for now. So, until next week, keep reading and/or writing!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Bad Writing

I tried to start reading a book earlier this week, and I just couldn't get through the first half-dozen pages. It usually takes a lot for me to put down a book without giving it much of a chance, but this one destroyed many of the rules writers are told not to do. I'm not going to name the book or author, but I figured it'd be a good chance to go over some things to avoid when writing.

The first thing that screamed out at me was the banter between the two characters. The author feels the need to get some background information out to the reader, so he has the characters using the "As you know..." method. This writer doesn't come right out and have the characters start their lines with those three words of death, but the intent is the same. For those of you unfamiliar with this, it means the characters feed each other lines that are common knowledge to each other. If these characters were real, they would have no need to say these things to each other, yet there they are in the book, spewing common knowledge. It does work at getting the information to the reader, that's for sure, but it shows a lazy writer.

I also had a few other problems with word choices and techniques that forced me to put the book down. Believe it or not, some words are basically invisible to the reader, something the author can sometimes struggle with. As a writer, we are taught that we should not repeat certain words too often. Some words, however, are okay to use over and over. One of those is "said," as in showing who is speaking in dialog: "I didn't like this book," Eric said. Said can be used over and over, and it won't be overused. The sign of an amateur is one who uses describing words instead of "said." (For example, "I didn't like this book," Eric grumbled.) Even better, of course, is using action to let the reader know who is talking, and I must admit the author of this book did that quite often in the few pages I read. (An example of this is: Eric closed the book without marking his place. "I didn't like this book.") But remember that "said" is just fine. You won't lose readers over using it, while you run the risk if you substitute adjectives and other describers for it.

One other thing that jumped out at me to mark this author as a lazy writer was the use of adverbs. Adverbs can be helpful and even add something to some writings, but fiction isn't one of them. The author should find other ways to show what those adverbs are showing. If a character says something joyously, sure we get that she is thrilled, but actions and word choice would be a much better way to show this. Having said that, though, know that this isn't a deal breaker. I might not even have noticed if the other two things above hadn't grabbed me by the throat and made me look for reasons to stop reading this book. Even authors who profess that adverbs are evil in fiction have at least one or two of them in their stories (I've looked). If they are not overused, they'll go unnoticed (or might even gain power they shouldn't have), but if they're in the story often, they show amatuerism and lazyness.

Honestly (adverbs are fine for blogs, in my humble little opinion), if the characters hadn't employed the "As you know..." dialogue, the non-use of said and the adverbs wouldn't even have phased me. Once I saw the author being incredibly lazy, though, other things popped up into my consciousness. I believe this is a great lesson for me and anyone else who wants to write. You can get away with little things if bigger things are done right. Remember, a reader is more likely to put a book down after the first few pages because he or she is not invested in that story and characters yet. Deeper in, the reader will likely stick with it to see how it ends. Of course, that same reader may not be happy with the writing and may not pick up another of your books if the middle was lazy, so the lesson here, I guess, is to take the time to make sure the finished product is good all the way through. Adverbs and other lazy techniques are fine for a first draft, but make sure you get rid of them in the revision process.

That's all for today. I hope this article helped you; I know it helped focus me a bit more on the importance of strong writing. Until next time, keep reading and/or writing.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

My Novel Writing (1st in a series)

I've decided what my novel will be about. And then I decided to start a second one while I was planning the first. Counter-productive, yeah, I know, but I have a reason.

The novel I decided to write has all the buildings of a stand-alone fantasy epic, with suspense, action, romance, and all the good stuff that go into a great novel. So if I fail to deliver, I know it's not the fault of the idea. I'm in the process of planning it out, which may take some time. But that's a good thing, as it'll make for a deeper story right out of the chute. I will probably run through my process of building and plotting and all the other good stuff at a later date, but for now I want to continue with the process first.

With the second novel I decided to start on, I'm taking a whole different approach. This was the one I was originally going to do when I thought about it a week or so ago, but I just couldn't think of enough things to make it long enough to warrent writing. With my plotting, it was going to turn into just a long short story or a short novella. Not what I wanted, so I hit upon a better idea.

But this idea wouldn't go away. I still didn't have the makings for anything longer, so I decided I wouldn't plot it. I'd let my imagination run wild with it and just start typing. If it was destined to not become long enough to be a novel, I'd at least have something written. And who knows? Maybe my subconscious has a plan for it since it wouldn't let it go. I guess I'll find out. I've decided to write at least 2 pages a day, 6 days a week to find out. So far I've written 3, 3, and 4, so I'm doing better than my goal. My other project is not really taking a backseat as I'm still plotting it, but it may be a bit slower than I'd originally anticipated. They are two very different ideas, so I like that I don't get them jumbled in my mind.

That's all I'm going to post for now. As you can tell by the title of this particular post, I'll revisit this topic from time to time (maybe weekly, maybe bi-weekly, maybe whenever I feel like it). Until next time, keep reading and/or writing!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Character Creation Pt. 2

In a short story I don't characterize at all. In the begining, I mean. I just start writing, letting story lead me. The character will grow organically, and if I've done my job, the characters in the story will seem real and well thought out. I also just push through to the end, not revising at all (but more on that in a future post). Therefore, if when I'm revising the story feels flat, one thing to look at is the characters. If they turn out to be nothing more that cookie cut-outs, chances are the story won't work. This is the time to tinker with the character, not at the beginning of the process. Make the character work. I'm the author, not the characters, no matter what others might say. The first draft is just to get ideas down into a workable manuscript, while the revisions are when I craft it into an actual story. Sometimes the entire thing is very close to done with the first draft (characters and all), but more often times it takes four or five (or more) passes through with a red correcting pen before the story (and characters) are ready to be presented as an actual story.

Novels are a bit different. As I've said, I've never penned a novel all the way through, but I have ideas, both my own and from what I've read, about characterization. First off, I truly believe it matters what kind of novel you plan to write as to how much characterization you should do. Personally, the stories I like to read and write are plot-driven. Characters are important, but they depend on the plot, not the other way around. I'm not going to go through a whole character checklist to find out which hospital the main character was born in or at what age he first sat on the toilet and pooped without diapers. It's not esential. I don't need to know that. To write, I just need to know the essentials of my characters to get started. All the little things that pop up to give a depth to the character are essential, but they can come in the process of writing the durn thing.

I've created my own little list of what I want to know about my character before I start. This list has six things for me to flesh out. I write a paragraph on each (more if it just screams out for me to do so) and go from there. Maybe this can help you, too.
  1. Write a paragraph on the character's past.
  2. Write a paragraph on the character's present (before the actual start of the story).
  3. Write a paragraph on the character's role in the story.
  4. Write a paragraph on the character's motives and goals.
  5. Write a paragraph on the character's main conflict.
  6. Write a paragraph on how the character changes (his or her epiphany).

I have other things I can add if I have them in mind right away, such as the character's most prominent personality trait, his or her habits, and other things along those lines. If, however, they don't jump out at me, I'll wait. Something great may come to me while I'm getting to know the character while writing. Or when something pops up in the plot that would make a quirky personality trait or hobby or talent relevant, I can think of something then. Or in the revision process. (Also notice that most of the list depends on having a firm grasp on the plot before the characterization process can start.)

My point is this: you don't have to know everything about your character before you start. If you think you do, fine, do it. But if you need permission to start writing your story before you know what presents your character got for his third birthday, consider this my high-five to you to get started.

One other point I want to make before I sign off for today: Notice I didn't add physical description to my characterization. I don't believe a character (the main characters, at least) should have much physical description added to them. Let the reader decide what the main character looks. Unless a certain physical trait is important to the story, don't bother. Of course, if the character's long legs get him out of trouble somewhere in the middle of the story (or especially if it's in the climax), make sure you casually mention that somewhere in the beginning. You don't want to cheat the reader this way.

Until next time, have fun reading and/or writing!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Creating Characters Pt. 1

I don't agree with writers who say characters are the only way to start a project. They say plot comes from characters and only from characters. You should know your character almost better than you know yourself before you start writing. You should know every bit of detail about them, from who their first crush was to what the first solid food they ever ate was. Only after you know all about these characters can you even think about what the plot of the story will be.

BS I say.

Don't get me wrong, having a good character, one who the reader can relate to, is extremely important to a good story, but in my opinion, plot is king. The character is there to help tell the story, to entertain. The character should fit into the story, not the other way around.

Of course, when the story is finished, that shouldn't show. It should look like the story evolved because of the characters. The way this happens, in my opinion, is not because of intense characterization before the process, but because the author learned more about his or her characters in both the first draft and the revision process. The author should think about the characters a bit before writing starts, but how much time spent depends on the project.

Next time I'll discuss my thoughts on that last sentence in more detail. Until then, have fun reading and/or writing!