Category Archives: Writing the Good Story

Revising your beginnings

You have your story written and you are ready to revise the beginning.

Beginnings are so important. I’m talking about true beginnings here — Chapter 1 beginnings. Sometimes the following that I talk about here does take place in a prologue, but there’s a thing about prologues that most writers fail to realize: a prologue is part of the story, but it is outside of the story. Chapter 1 shouldn’t start off where the prologue ends. If it does, it’s not a true prologue. Now, if you add an epilogue at the end, you have created what is known as a “frame.” Think of this as a frame that holds a painting. It helps to contain the painting within it’s borders and helps to hang the painting, but it’s not the painting itself. Oh, there are some artists that get fancy and and extend their painting onto the frame, but that’s the exact same kind of bleed that  you will have where your story blends into the prologue. So, for now, let’s pretend that your story doesn’t have a prologue but you just start it at the first chapter. There’s a lot to pay attention to and all of it is necessary. Fortunately, there is a kind of formula that will help.

It starts with knowing your hero’s journey. The very first part of your hero’s journey is to show the hero at home. This isn’t necessarily a “home” as in a location, but rather what your character is good at. The character is “at home” with who he or she is.

So what’s your character’s strength? What is the one thing that puts them in tune with the world? Where are they most comfortable?

That’s step one. Step two is what’s the action that’s taking place? Being good at something generally they are doing something. So what’s the middle of that action? What are they caught up in?

Step three is knowing how this scene will lead into the Call to Adventure.

Now realize that you have to do most of the first two steps within the first page or two.

At the start of The Three Books, Steigan is out in the forest looking for killers. I have had him using his tracking skills, but the reader doesn’t know that;  my character wouldn’t have thought about it (“Oh what a good tracker am I!”) so it became unimportant for the reader to know that. He has come across a woman dancing in the forest and he tries to puzzle out who she is. He is watching his movements and knows that he’s got one shot at this; if he fails, more people will die. It instantly shows that he’s a skilled warrior, smart, perceptive, and aware of his mission. This defines my character in a nutshell.

Let’s look at another example:

“What are we going to do now?” Nyree asked me as she laid her bundle of wildflowers atop the fresh grave mound.

The old woman had told us not to mourn her passing, but how could I not? She’d taken in two half-starved little waifs she’d found lost and scared in the forest. She’d explained about my magic, saying that it was wild having come on so strongly so late in my life. She’d helped me learned to hide it as she had her own. Now I’d lost a kindred spirit and Nyree was asking me what we were going to do now.

I knew the answer I wanted. I was perfectly happy here. I could live out the rest of my days in the old woman’s cabin, hiding from a world that wouldn’t accept me as she had done.

But Nyree… like many girls her age I’m sure, she’d become enamored with the romantic notions she’d been reading about in the many books the old woman had owned. Many days, the two of them had sat together and giggled while sharing passages. I’d been outside trying to repair the house and grounds, yet their laughter had reached me anyway. While the old woman taught me about my magic, she taught Nyree how to be a woman.

The old woman knew that one day we’d have to return.

I guess that Nyree had sacrificed many years for me to be here learning about my wild magic. She had wanted to be back with our people, I knew. So now, I guess it was time to return to our people for Nyree’s sake. It was her time to live.

I would be happy staying here.

This is actually a first draft of another story I have. This is actually chapter one though I do have a prologue which happens when these two characters are children — he essentially blows up his village, killing everyone there except for him and his sister. It’s entirely an accident because he can’t control his magic and actually this is the second time that has happened. Because of the large gap in time, I made it a prologue because the characters had wandered and found this old woman who took them in and trained his magic. There is a lot of telling in this piece, but we won’t even get into that here. Let’s just look at the formula.

Step 1: Is my character showing a strength? Honestly, no. He’s not even at home within himself. He’s mourning. Since the reader has no idea who he’s mourning other than by what is being told, there is no emotional connection for the reader. Because the prologue has him being so destructive as a young child, the reader will know he’s powerful magically, but they won’t know what he’s done with it the last few years. Is there any indicator here what his strength might be? His love for his sister, his magic if he has control of it now, being self-sufficient. Okay, so does any of that describe my character? Yes, all three. So, my hero at home would be a scene that incorporated those elements.

I want to think about Step 2 for a moment. I need to show my character adoring his sister while having control of his magic and being self-sufficient. What action would do that? Once I know the answer to that, I can give it a better beginning.

Let’s look at Step 3. The scene has to lead to the Call to Adventure. The old woman dying and the children (now teenagers) having to decide what to do next is a call to adventure. Because my character is so focused on giving his sister a new life, the death has become a catalyst. So, I really have to assess if my prologue is indeed a prologue or if that’s my hero at home. With what I’ve already written about the prologue, what do you think? Do you think my character is showing a strength, is he feeling at home? No. He’s not. He’s a kid who can’t control his power. He’s helpless to it. So I need a scene which will lend itself to a Call and show my character now being strong.

Let’s try this again:

A cold darkness wafted through the forest like a thick fog. I followed my sister, letting her choose the paths through the trees. We were out before sunrise. This would be a long day. Three orbs of light bobbed in the air just in front of Nyree and lit the trail ahead. She reached out to touch one with her finger. 

“It’ll bite you,” I warned her over her shoulder, even though she just laughed at my warning and poked at the white-yellow globe. With a thought, I transformed it into a tiny flying dragon which snapped at her fingers. She hid her fingers beneath her arms which she held closely to her body as the dragon chased her around in circles. 

“Come on,” she squealed. “I want to have enough dawn flowers picked.”

“You’ve carried two bundles back to the house already.”

She hugged herself tighter. The snap dragon swarmed around in a circle and retook orb form, then floated up like a bubble to join the others. “Only two. That’s so few.”

He wanted to remind her that the old woman no longer carried, that her energy had moved on from the physical shell of this world, but Nyree wasn’t ready to hear that yet. “You’ll have time,” he said softly. “I still have a grave to dig.”

“It’s going to get awfully quiet this evening with out her,” Nyree said. “What are we going to do now?”

While this isn’t the scene I’m likely to use when I finally get around to doing the rewrite, it works as an example. Now we show the character in control of his magic as well as having fun with his sister even though they both are mourning.

Let’s revisit the steps. Step 1: Does it show the character’s strength? Is he at home? Yes. He’s with his sister, making her laugh and that will endear him to the reader, especially when the reader discovers why they are out in the forest at night. He may not be comfortable in the scene, trying to keep his own emotions in check while his sister is about to cry (again). He knows he has more work to do before this day is done, but he cannot be whiny or weak about it. It’s his duty.

Step 2: Is it in the middle of the action? Yes. The old woman has died and they are preparing to bury her — those two actions are a start and an end of themselves. In the first scene, they had already buried her. The action was over. And yes, in rewriting the scene with these questions in mind has made me have that realization that I truly have now started it in the middle of the action.

Step 3: Does this lead to the Call to Adventure? No longer is the old woman’s death a call to adventure. I’m not sure yet because this clip is short, but my guess would be that a further call would come during the burial or shortly thereafter. We’ve lost all of the character’s thoughts about how his sister needs to be around people so she can live a “normal life.” So, there has to be something else that will come along and drive them out of their home. There will be another catalyst to act as the call, even if it is just the character thinking about how his sister needs a life, though that will probably have some sort of instigating factor which makes him think that way.

There you have it.

If nothing else, just remember to show your character being strong in the beginning. They have the rest of the book to be flawed and mess things up. You, however, only have those first few pages to get the reader on your side for this character and that means letting your character be confident.

Happy writing.

 

Plotting your character’s challenges

“I’m plotting against you.”

On Facebook, a friend of mine shared an image of those words. I feel it’s so appropriate to lead in with this because as a writer you need to always be plotting against the main characters.

Yes, always.

I understand it’s hard when you love your main characters so much. They are a part of you and there’s a desire within yourself to be this character. If there isn’t, then why are you writing about this character?

But you always have to ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that could happen to my character at this point?” Even as you’re going back through editing your manuscript, you need to ask this question: is it the absolute worst thing that could happen? If your answer is no, then you need to push it harder.

This is when you get to the real meat of the story.

Don’t plan out how your character gets out of the position you push them into. Let them figure it out. This is when your character surprises you and thinks of the one thing you never saw coming. These are the moments when you laugh out loud because they are hitting you in the face with your own pie. This is when you will love your character more than you thought possible.

Then you throw them back down into the pit lined with fiery coals again.

Don’t just let your main character win. Make them fight to win.

What secret lurks in that brain of yours?

I have a simple question for you: What’s your character’s deepest, darkest secret?

Everyone has one thing that they don’t want the world to know. Everyone. Take just a moment to think about your deep, dark secret. What’s the one thing you feel so much regret and disappointment with yourself over? What would you not want your parents or your children to find out about? How far would you go to keep your secret from them?

There is a secret that lurks in your characters’ mind too. What does your character not want the world to know about? How well do they keep that secret?

This is a key to finding motivation for your characters and everyone in the cast should have one.

It’s an interesting exercise to do and you never know how much more you can deepen your story. For example, when I was working on The Three Books, I asked what Holy Sapere Adonid’s deep, dark secret was — what was he afraid of his followers and the council finding out? Here was this man who was like a Greek god in my mind (I modified his name right from Adonis, who was a handsome, fertility god) with long blond hair to die for and supreme power in the land. I’ve always seen this character in white and gold robes for innocence and sunlight. What could he possibly have ever done wrong? When I figured it out, I knew what had caused the split in the friendship between Adonid, Greytas, and Arlyn. I knew exactly what had happened (and unfortunately I can’t say now because it’s revealed in the fourth book, though not by Adonid because he would never confess his shame, but that doesn’t stop Arlyn from filling in Steigan with the truth). I also learned what Greytas’ deep, dark secret was because of finding out about Adonid’s secret. Arlyn was a bit more of a chore to find out his secret, but I now know his. Whereas Adonid and Greytas have their secrets stemming from events when they were adults, Arlyn’s comes from when he was a child.

When a character fears having that secret revealed, they will go to almost any length to keep it under wraps.

Another fun exercise with this is to go somewhere populated, like a park, mall, or even the grocery store, and watch people. As yourself what deep, dark secret that little old lady squeezing every loaf of bread has. Or the Hispanic man who is on the phone and checking his watch. See the blond girls there giggling close together as they walk along? Are they in on each other’s secret? What would it take for one of them to reveal her friend’s secret to a rival? Or a boy she liked because she wanted to impress him? Oh, this can be fun.

There’s a good chance that you’ll never reveal this secret to your readers — not all of them become important to the story. In the life of Saint Steigan, there’s a period of about 30 cycles which he never EVER talks about, not even to me. I had to go to Annae to fill in the blanks for me and even she wasn’t privy to Steigan’s innermost thoughts. I know Saint Steigan’s deep, dark secret happens in this time. I just know it. I suspect I know what it is, but he’s very good at keeping me from touching upon it. I know that Dominus Steigan’s deep, dark secret was being kissed in the alleyway by the baker’s daughter. He was not prepared for that and hopes every day that he was so awful at it that she has never told anyone about it. He also never let himself be put in a compromising position like that again. Yes, a deep, dark secret can be something as innocent as that — a stolen kiss. For a character whose long-term goal of having a family seems like an unrealistic pipe-dream (so much so that he refuses to admit having this goal even to himself), an intimate moment like this is not something he wants the world to know about.

Now, what deep dark secret is your villain hiding? As I said in The Write Edit, “It takes years to develop the human personality. Why would you spend only a few minutes creating the villain who takes on your main character?”

Good night, right brain. Good morning, left brain.

You’ve finished your manuscript. Congratulations. I hope you gave yourself a break, at least a day, and treated yourself to something (sleep?).

Seriously, do give yourself a reward. You deserve it. Really! You’ve done what a lot of people only dream about.

After that treat — be it a chocolate sundae (my favorite), a new shirt, a nap (also a favorite), a walk around the mall, a new book, half an hour of uninterrupted tv watching, or whatever — then it will be time to get down to the real work. You should wait until the next day to begin editing at least so that you have time to detach from the work.

The point is that you need a break to calm the active imagination portion of your brain so that you can think logically and make sure your book is lined out well — that’s the left brain’s job.

Hopefully you’ve made a list of notes of things that need to be fixed in the story. If so, it’s a good idea to review those now. If this is your first book or even second, I highly recommend going back and writing a one – two page synopsis of your story. For those of you who don’t know what a synopsis is, it’s a summary of your story which tells a publisher what’s going to happen in the book. For our purposes though, a publisher will never see this version. It doesn’t matter if your copy is single or double spaced. Reveal all the details. This is meant for your eyes only. This is your road map for editing.

Don’t force yourself to try to remember everything in the story. Skim through the manuscript to see what happens. That way you can see if it has a beginning, middle, and end. If it ends up being a series of events rather than a character’s struggle to reach a goal, you have a problem. It means the plot of your story isn’t mature enough yet and you need to rethink what danger your character is facing and why it matters to your character.

There’s an excellent book by James Frey called The Key. He takes the heroic structure of story based on Joseph Campbell’s work and sets it into an easy to understand format. You can follow him along as he sets up a story using the hero’s journey.

I’m sure I said before that I don’t plot out my books using an outline. I do however use the hero’s journey to give my story structure. This usually happens when I’m writing the story. If I trust the process, I will come to a point at which I want to understand the direction I’m going. I have a sheet worked up with the hero’s journey lined out on it. I’ve attached a PDF of the file I use — you’ll probably want to create your own in your word processing program so you can easily edit it — just always to remember to save it with a different file name so you don’t overwrite your master file (not that it’s hard to recreate).

I know a lot of people who recommend putting the manuscript away for at least three months and working on a new manuscript during this time. I’ve never been someone who can do that. Even if you do decide to put the story aside for a while, you should at least write the synopsis before you do.

Keep working at this until your synopsis confirms that your story is strong.

Happy writing!

Finish Well

You’ve gotten started with your manuscript and you understand the obstacles which your character(s) face.  Now what? You’ve got to finish the manuscript.

As I said in the sample for Dragons of Wellsdeep, I wouldn’t even start editing until I finish the manuscript (under ordinary circumstances, which these edited pages are not). Don’t be surprised if your second story wants to be written in a different way than you wrote the first. Each story is unique and comes into this world however and whenever they want. For my Sacred Knight series, I use a free scripting program called Celtx where I just write the dialog and action in my first draft. The Loki Adventures is written in Microsoft Word. I’ve had to hand write some manuscripts. Others I’ve done on a typewriter. As I said in my earlier post, the equipment doesn’t matter. Just get started. Let the process tell you what you need to do.

But here’s what I don’t want you to do, especially if this is your first manuscript: don’t go back and re-read your writing from the beginning. All you’ll do is find things wrong with it. Your left-brained critic will jump all over it. Or you’ll see things you need to fix and you’ll just take a moment to do that; then you’ve wasted energy and won’t be going any further. This is a sure-fire way to make sure you get stuck in the mud. So don’t do it!

If you think you need to check something, make a note. You can do this easily enough in most word processing programs or with a simple sticky note marking the page. Or dog-ear it and highlight. Just don’t go back. You need to get through the story. Fixing it will come later. I promise.

*** I will note here that I will stop and chuck scenes, chapters, or the whole damn book if it feels wrong, but I’ve spent enough time learning to trust the process that I know in my gut when it’s not working. Do not expect this if you’re working on your first manuscript. It will develop over time. Be patient. If you’ve gotten several manuscripts under your belt and the process is telling you that you’re getting bogged down, you probably are. Go back to where it last felt right and go forward again. Don’t delete anything you’ve written! Duplicate a chapter and rename it with OLD if you need to, start a new draft of your manuscript (I designate my files with d1 or d2, etc. for draft 1 or draft 2 or whatever draft I’m on). Just make sure you’re on the right file. I know I’ve written scenes, tossed them out, then decided that they fit in a different spot so I’ve had to go get them out of another version of my work.  Don’t delete or overwrite files. If space is tight on your computer system (why aren’t you saving to the cloud already?) then buy a flash drive; they have become so inexpensive and is a lot cheaper than having to spend time recreating a scene which will never be right in you mind that second time around.***

I’ve seen stats that say that something like 81% of the population wants to write a book.Out of that 81%, only 7% will actually sit down to do it. From that 7%, only 3% will finish. All the rest give up. Finish the manuscript. Get to the end. It doesn’t count until you pass that finish line. Get it done. Only once you have the whole story out can you know what it’s about and what you need to do to start fixing it. The real work is about to begin, so go treat yourself with a reward. You deserve it.

Story

What is a story?

We all tell stories every day. We hope to captivate our listeners into having an emotional response; for example when we are telling our children about how we received a special letter of recommendation for a job well done,  we hope our children will feel pride in us. Or we gossip, hoping to turn the listener to discrediting any value they previously put into the person who is the object of our conversation. Negative stories generally hit the news faster than anything and people are all too eager to share bad things that happen in their day.

Why is this?

Because deep at heart, we are always trying to portray ourselves as a hero. We are the center of our story. It’s us against the world. If we can rally others to our way of thinking, we can become leaders. Get enough followers and you will be a great leader. Even horrible news stories, are at a deep and usually unspoken level, about the people that survived, got through it, and won the day. The dead tell no tales. It’s true that history is written by the victors. No one wants to hear from those that lost.

But what makes a good fictional story?

A fiction story is all about how a character faces danger. Danger doesn’t have to be life threatening. Danger can be a spouse having an affair, where a wife (and hero of our story) fears that she will be out on the street if her husband leaves her.

For more examples and a deeper discussion of story, check out my book, The Write Edit.

How is your character facing danger? What do they have to lose and what do they think will happen if they lose it?

Get started

I thought we’d play a little game to get the ball rolling. Shall we begin?

What’s the most important part of writing?

Quick, think of your answer! Five — four — three — two — one. What’s your answer?

Did you say, “Having an idea?” Or what about a character? Do you need that to start writing? Maybe you think you need a computer. Word processing software. Oh, oh, what about a program like First Draft which will help you develop your plot. That’s a must-have, right?

Or is it about putting your butt in the chair and doing the work? Half-an-hour or more of uninterrupted time to yourself to think? What is the most important thing?

I’m might surprise you here — you don’t need any of that. None!

It’s great to have an idea for a story or, as what often happens to me, a character that you want to write about, but people write non-fiction based on something they know everyday, so those things aren’t necessary to write. You can write on a computer, or with a typewriter, or with a pen and paper. You can write on a voice recorder and have someone transcribe it later. So there is no required hardware. There is no need for fancy software either. So, the answer must be in making the time, right? Nope! I’ve written standing up in the line at the supermarket, and I’ve used both my smartphone and pencil and paper to do this several times. I often spend 10-15 minutes writing in the morning before I get ready for the Day Job. I’ve recorded passages for my book while driving to work — one of the reasons I always take the country roads to work instead of the highway. The phone just sits on the seat beside me while I yammer and drive along at 50 miles per hour.  I can’t imagine trying to do this at 80 with so many other people on the road. After all, you never drive just for yourself, but for everyone else on the road too! (Great advise my father gave me a long time ago and I think more people need to hear. Speech over.)

So what’s the most important part of writing?

Getting the words down. It doesn’t matter what you write, fiction or non-fiction, the most important is getting it out of your brain onto something that you can edit later. Nothing matters until you get started.

Here’s a little experiment I’m going to run:

I have a story titled The Dragons of Wellsdeep and I’m currently writing it. Each week, I’ll post one page from the story and we’ll edit it. I have no idea where the story is going — it’s not that well developed. I’m just writing and trusting the process. We’ll build this story from the ground up. Normally, I would write the whole manuscript before going back and editing, but for the sake of giving good examples for you to learn from, you’ll share this journey with me. I might end up getting several chapters in and end up scrapping the whole thing because it isn’t working. We’ll see. But I have faith in the process and I’m being led to share this journey with you in this fashion.

Here’s our schedule:

On Thursdays, I’ll release a blog post about writing or editing to help you with the process. Here’s where I will edit someone else’s work or answer a question from you (find out how to submit your work or your question here). Don’t be shy. Anything you submit will help someone else too.

On Sundays, I’ll release the page for The Dragons of Wellsdeep as well as my current thoughts about the manuscript and potential edits I will make. Your comments are welcomed too.

Let’s get started, shall we?