Category Archives: Writing Fiction

Writing Action Scenes – Part 2

Whether or not you read the last post, I highly suggest you go (re)read it now. It is an important example.

The answer really is to write short sentences. It’s a little more than that though. The habit of Steven King’s use of one word chapters was a little excessive. You. Can’t. Just. Write. Like this. And. Get. Great. Results.

I’d like to take you back to my story for a moment. Let’s return and look at Dragons of Wellsdeep pages 8 and 9.

If you look at page 8, we start off in Moonhunter’s thoughts. The second paragraph has Moonhunter being fired upon. Except for the second-to-last sentence in the paragraph, they are all relatively short sentences or are divided by commas, which gives a feeling of a break.

The third paragraph has the sentences stretching out a bit more. It kind of feels all short and anxious, followed by a bigger span in order to breathe. Then we have Balthier’s and Moonhunter’s action and dialogue sequence. See how it starts off long and starts to get shorter as they go along. I’m increasing the page here with the white space of the page.

Now, in the last post, did you feel the intensity of it? Maybe a bit disappointed that there wasn’t more? I set up the great question, then slammed with the answer.

Bam! I have you.

It’s those short, punchy sentences where action has to take place. It locks you in. But you also have to have those longer sentences where the reader feels the space to breathe. You’re probably starting to feel a bit of the hypnotic spell here with post. At least I hope you are.

Now look at page 9 and see the sentences vary in length depending upon the emotional impact I want for the action scene.

Now, go write great action!

Is writing worthy of your life?

I have been wondering if my post last Thursday was too harsh. Maybe a little. Then I remind myself of two things:

1. When I write a blog post, I’m usually writing it for me as much as anyone else. I often find myself giving the very advice I need to hear. So did I need to give myself that advice? Yes. Not just for my writing either, but that’s another story.

2. I’ve had enough people wonder how I find the time to write when I work full-time and raise two boys by myself. I usually just shrug and reply that I have really good children who help me out a lot. But that’s only part of the answer. The full answer includes the explanation that I don’t “find” the time to write. I “make” the time. If you’re looking to find the time to write, you will never find it. You have to decide that writing is important enough for you to do it. If it’s not, then move onto other things that are worthy of your time. 

Last week I heard some great advice. The woman who gave it said that she’d been asked the question and it had helped her put some things in perspective. So now I share her advice with you:

“Today I heard some advice that I know I will use to measure the importance of my goals. The question that was asked was: Which goal is worthy of your life? Which would you trade your life for?”

So, with that being said, is writing worthy of your life? You are going to trade away hours and hours of your life to tell an elaborate lie (which is the essence of all fiction) which you hope other people will read and enjoy. Make sure you are making the best possible choice for yourself. Also realize that over time the answer to this question might change. We all go through seasons.

So, if you still know that writing is your everything, I wish you happy writing! Now go get to work on that manuscript.

When the writing gets hard

Yes, there are days when the writing gets hard. There are days when the editing gets harder.

Go on, Google all you want on creative blocks. You’ll find lots of answers.

Yes, follow all those leads if you will: read a book, take a walk, write anyway, edit anyway, blah, blah, blah.

The truth is there are just some days when you can’t do it. This blog is as much about my journey in writing as it is yours. It is my legacy. Someday someone will come along and read this and know that I’m sharing everything I know about writing with you in order to help you.

So here it is, the truth about when the writing gets hard:

Suck it up, cupcake. No job or career is fun all the time. There are times when you just have to make yourself have the discipline to step forward into the task you don’t really want to do. If you want to wait on the Muse, put down your pencil or delete all the writing files off your hard drive now. You cannot wait for anything. You only have this moment because one minute, one hour from now and it’s gone. Hard work requires discipline. If you want to have your book done, you have to do it.  Put your butt in the chair and do the work or suffer the regret later. That’s your choice.

Now I’m really going to injure those creative block lists. The thing is, they aren’t all wrong either. Sometimes you do need to step away for a moment. A moment! Half an hour or less, if you think that life won’t suck you into something else. Don’t let drama happen to you in order to procrastinate. If you think that’s going to happen, skip this paragraph and move right to the next one.

Just because you don’t want to write one book, or if you feel it’s too difficult of a scene for you to write from where you’re at in your life right now, switch to something else. Yes, you heard me. Start another project. (gasp!) I’ve found that everything cycles around. I’ve learned to listen to my Muse and what she wants to work on. Sometimes I have a schedule for a book and I have to override the Muse — but hey, who really is in control of this body anyway? When she gets a body, she can do what she wants too. Until then, I ask, “What would you like to work on?”, she answers, then I have to decide if it’s really wise or not. My decision. Then I step into discipline, put my butt in the chair, and get to work.

I generally have 2 or 3 projects going at once. My main writing projects right now are, of course, Sacred Knight and The Loki Adventures. After that, I know that I have Dragons of Wellsdeep to write for this blog. If I really don’t want to work on any of those projects, I also have the script for my Weblinks comic (which I’m also lining out at a novel when I have time and inclination), and another young adult story. I like having lots of ideas. I might not feel like working on one story at the moment, but surely there is another which I can easily lean into and work on.

If I don’t, I write anyway. Unless I really can’t. But that’s usually because I’ve gone into a cycle to draw or paint and that’s a whole other can of worms.

So write. Be disciplined, even if you don’t feel like. The Muse will sit down with you when she realizes you are serious. She usually just wants to see you get to work first.

Get to it. Happy writing.

Have you found your writing flow?

In last Sunday’s post, I mentioned how my first drafts are heavy on the action and dialogue and include minimal setting details. I didn’t figure this out overnight. In fact, I didn’t even figure it out myself. My critique partners mentioned it when they asked why I didn’t write screenplays. Both of them were very aware that I saw my stories in a cinematic fashion and I do; I see everything as if I’m watching a movie. They told me that I should stick with my strengths and let a set designer and costumer do the rest of the work.

The fact is that screenwriting is a difficult industry to get into. I certainly don’t have the connections to make it happen, not without more work than I want to put in. I’d rather do a couple more subsequent drafts of adding the detail.

Here’s a colorful tip for getting a visual on your strengths:

Take some highlighters, none that will cover up your text or make it difficult to see what you’ve written and start going through your manuscript. Color dialogue in yellow (or the color of your choosing), setting and other detail words in blue, thoughts, internalization, or point of view indicators in pink, and everything that is left will be narrative.

Let’s have an example (since I can’t highlight, I will change the font color):

Caitlyn looked out the window at the darkening sky while she parted the heavy, velvet drapes with her hands. With the sun fading behind the clouds, she could dare to open up her world some. She reached down to put on her sunglasses, which hung from a chain around her neck. Her grandmother had always kept a pair of reading glasses on this chain, but Caitlyn didn’t need cheaters like that. Dark lens were another thing.

“Ow!” complained Lucky behind her as she drew the curtain across the rod. She glanced back at him, sitting at the mahogany table with his usual pile of papers before him. He capped his hand over his eyes, shielding them from the light of the overcast day. “Did you have to go and do that?”

“If it doesn’t hurt my eyes, it shouldn’t hurt yours,” Caitlyn responded as she opened the other curtain. If only for a moment, she enjoyed feeling human again.

So I have narrative in blue, dialogue in pink, details in reddish-brown, and thoughts/internalization in green.

Now, this isn’t an exact science. Sometimes things could fall into two categories — for example, I thought “chain around her neck” could be a detail or just part of the narrative. I gave myself the benefit of the detail here.

I did write this with the intent of it being a fairly balanced piece. If you have done this exercise for several pages of your manuscript, you should find that narrative is the most common, followed by details, then dialogue, then thoughts/internalization. You’ll see here that the blue (narrative) is the most used, followed by details (6 instances), then dialogue (3 instances), and thoughts (2 instances). If you have a scene which is heavy on the dialogue, make sure you don’t have a “talking heads” scene where the participants are just talking back and forth with no action or setting details. If you are still having narrative and details, but there’s a lot of dialogue, make sure it is balanced and flowing just so it’s not all speech; break the rhythm every now and then. Again, it’s not an exact science, just an experiment to show you how you work. Once you know your own writing flow, you know what you need to work on in the next draft.

Happy writing!

What’s in a name?

At one time I would have thought this to be obvious advice. But this tip comes directly from a contest I judged. I talk about it (and a lot of other things) in my book, The Write Edit. The name has been changed here, but the example is real.

Let’s say you have a character and his name is Jimmy John, but everyone refers to him JJ, don’t have his mother call him Jimmy, JJ, and Jimmy John in the same conversation in a scene. Why? Aren’t you trying to let the reader know the character’s name in dialogue instead of telling it? No! A mother is going to call her son by the name which reflects her feelings at the time.

Maybe the mother despises the name JJ, that it was something his friends started calling him in school and she hated from the moment she heard it. In that case, she would always call him Jimmy or Jimmy John, depending on her feelings for each name. But she would pick one.

Or, maybe she’s the one that started calling him JJ, so she’d call him that. But then that’s what she’d call him. Now, she might call him JJ under normal circumstances and call him Jimmy John if she’s being sharp with him.

“You’re a good boy, JJ for opening the door for the lady.”

“Jimmy John, be a good boy and open the door for the lady.”

See the difference between the two. Hear the tone change? But you can’t have:

“JJ, get me the butter from the refrigerator. Oh, you’re such a good boy, Jimmy John. Now, Jimmy, I do wish you’d settle down and marry that girl, Allison. She’d be so good for you, JJ.”

Wow, does she have three people in the room? I kid you not, this was pretty much how the manuscript rolled when I judged it. I had to read it several times before I got the point that Jimmy John and JJ were the same person.

Notice how often you actually use someone’s name when you’re talking to them. Usually it’s only if you’re trying to get their attention.

“JJ, get me the butter from the refrigerator. Thank you, you’re such a good boy. I wish you’d settle down and marry Allison. She’d be so good for you.”

Doesn’t that sound more like realistic dialogue than the first?

Happy writing!

Manuscript Mechanics: Italics vs. Underline

Welcome to the showdown between italics and underlines.

Since my last couple of posts have been deep, I thought I’d go for something a little more technical on the manuscript preparation side of things.

I remember when I was writing when I was growing up. I used an old brown Smith Corona typewriter. If I was really lucky, my mother would let me use her old greet IBM typewriter. I also remember the stern advice that came from the writing magazines: don’t use italics; always underline things you want to appear in italics when you book is published. Great advice, except for two things: 1) I couldn’t change the type on my typewriter so who was this advice for (who was lucky enough to have italics), and 2) underlining wasted so much typewriter ribbon. It was the second that really irritated me. I’d even try to re-ink my ribbons, or if they were the one-time use ribbons, I’d try to rewind them. Neither ever worked very effectively, so underlining was something I really tried to avoid.

Then, sometime in the 1990’s, I bought a new Smith Corona word processor and it came with round disks that could be changed out. Here’s some pictures of a disk I just took out of my Smith Corona (yes, I still have my word processor as well as the Smith Corona computer-like machine I practically starved for in order to afford and I might even have my first Smith Corona typewriter around somewhere too — I’m such a fan-girl!):

Smith Corona reel - front side

This shows the front side of the disk. You can see that the font is Regency in a 10 point size.

Smith Corona reel - back side

 

This is the back and you can see the letters on ends of each leg. This letters would hit the ribbon and leave the imprint of the letter on the paper.

I had purchased a set of these at a thrift store and when I got home I discovered that an italic font as one of the disks. Now I could do my own italic fonts if I wanted. And I felt it was wasted because the advice was always to underline. Bummer!

But the question came up not to long ago as to why the publishers wanted underlined instead of italics on the manuscript. I mean, it’s all done by computers now days, isn’t it? Doesn’t the computer know the italic font?

Now if you Google why publishers want underline instead of italics you’ll get some strange answers (like it had to do with the spacing on typewriters, but that was from the writer’s end of it, not the publishers — why would the publisher request underlines? It’s not that publishers were trying to make the writer’s job easier as it would seem in some things I read on this) My theory is that underlining was actually for the printer, not the publisher. When the printer went to set up to publish a book on a press, the printer needed to know to change the fonts to italics. Now, imagine standing loading tiny letters onto plates all day… your eyes would get tired in no time at all. The underline helps the printer easily see when the change to italics is needed. Have you ever looked at a page and wondered if the text was actually in italics or not? Yeah, just like that.

Don’t assume that just because “everything is computerized” that it’s okay to put things in italics now. If you are trying to publish with a traditional publisher, read their guidelines. They will most likely tell you. If they don’t, stick with the underline until you are told by someone at the publishing house that italics are okay. Their eyes are tired from reading all day too, so this helps them out. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT think that you are sunshine enough to just use italics because your computer can do it and/or you think underlining is “old school.” I don’t give a flying crap! If the publisher’s guidelines don’t specify, then you go with the industry standard, which has been to underline. If you want to be part of the industry, then respect it. PERIOD!

If you are self-publishing, then don’t use the underline. You’ll waste your own time when you have to go back and put it in italics. I know; I’ve done this because old habits die hard and I kept underlining things and only caught it as I was setting up a print format for publication.  Grrr!

Okay, now get back to 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?”

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.