Monthly Archives: January 2015

Never Give Up

I love this image; I used to have a tea mug with a similar image to the one below, and it made me smile every time I used it.  There are times in our lives when we might feel discouraged, or overwhelmed at what we have to do or to go through.  If you have a goal or a dream, just keep putting one foot in front of the other – do something each day, no matter how small or insignificant that action may seem, toward reaching that goal.  Eventually you’ll get there!never-give-up

“Don’t give up whatever you’re trying to do — especially if you’re convinced that you’re botching it up.  Giving up reinforces a sense of incompetence; going on gives you a commitment to success.”

George Weinberg, English writer, activist

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7 Steps to a Powerful Opening

bottle-opener - millennium-falcon-

A powerful opener…

Anyone who writes novels worth reading can tell you that, as with any relationship, the first impression you make is the most important.  You know that you need to get your character from A to Z through the story, but how you introduce A is more important than B through Z – in other words, if you lose your reader’s interest from the get-go, they might not stick around long enough to find out where you want to lead them.  Here are 7 steps to remember that will lead you to that great first impression:

  1. Dive in! Hit the ground running!  Begin your story in the middle of an action scene, or in the middle of a conversation.  Let your reader feel like they’re eavesdropping on a decisive moment in your character’s life.  Make them wonder, make them ask questions they want answers to!  Who’s speaking?  What’s the context?  Why is there X problem / challenge / discussion?
  2. Make your character human: Give them sympathetic traits, a relatable nature, and attitudes that readers can identify with.  Do this through dialogue and actions, or by internalization (getting inside the character’s head, an “inner dialogue”).  It will help you to prepare your main characters by writing out a biography for them.  Give them memorable names (not complicated ones, or names that are difficult to work out how to pronounce).  The main character must be somewhat larger than life (more interesting than the average person in some way); do this through giving them idiosyncrasies, habits, a quirky sense of humour, etc.
  3. Romance: If your character is real, there will be romance – some kind of heart-to-heart relationship that touches that key human emotion.  I’m not talking about slutty romance novels; I’m talking about real human connection and rich emotional landscapes, whether it’s a small-town story, a science fiction planet, or a war zone.
  4. Supporting character: This might be a sidekick, a friend, partner, companion, or even an object or pet.  It is someone or something for the main character to share their experiences with.  The supporting character should contrast your main character – perhaps someone who asks the reader’s questions, or wants explanation of terms or concepts the reader might not be familiar with, without becoming “teach-y”.  They might be the voice of reason to an impulsive main character, or the voice of adventure to a staid hero/heroine.
  5. Antagonist: This opponent is an obstruction to the main character’s goals.  They create problems, sometimes danger.  They may be human, or non-human (e.g. man vs. nature), or may be an internal struggle of the main character (haunted by their past, or an addiction, a weakness such as impatience, etc.).
  6. Emotion: Build an emotional landscape (this links closely with # 3).  Show the main character as life-like, and develop relationships, or show struggles the character has with particular issues that give them depth and breadth.
  7. Style: Bring it all together in a style unique to your character’s voice and biography.  Show their feelings, conflicts, adding complications and subplots to take it deeper.  In your first chapter the goal of your character should come out – what their desires are, their determination, problems to solve, etc. – without making the arrival at that goal all too obvious!

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Novel Writing Pyramid

Novel Pyramid

When writing or drafting a new story, sometimes it’s easy to get lost in the forest due to the trees – in the myriad of ideas that flash up in a brainstorm.  The pyramid above helps remind me of the emphasis each area needs in the overall structure:

If a story is too complex, you’ll lose or confuse your readers; but if it’s too simple, it becomes predictable and therefore no challenge to the mind of the adventurer who’s picked up your book to get lost in another world.  Most of the best stories are, at their heart, quite simple – “boy meets girl”, or “person achieves goal”.

If you don’t know what your settings and themes are, how can you effectively work toward the final outcome?  If you don’t know who your character is, and what your basic plot (goal and how it’s achieved) is, how can you guide the reader through dialogue or prose toward the desired conclusion?  Diction is important because it is central to creating the voice of each character, and sticking to genre-specific vocabulary and expressions (i.e. no proverbial airplanes through the scenes of a historical novel).  As Mark Twain once wrote,

“The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

And if you have the top four slices of the pyramid in place, but don’t have proper foundations – in other words, know your grammar, spelling, punctuation and syntax (sentence structures, tense usage, etc.) then no matter how brilliant your plot might be, or your character development, if readers can’t get past your bad diction and grammar, you’ve lost them as present and future readers!

I’d like to encourage you to know your weaknesses, and develop them into strengths!  If grammar or spelling is a weakness, work on it – invest time into reviewing the rules – Wikipedia is an excellent source for articles on how to use punctuation, etc.  Buy a good grammar book, or even a grammar practice book with an answer key at the back (The “English Grammar in Use” series is one I used for years with EFLA students).  If plot or character development is a weakness, then make a list of questions for each, and take the time to think about and answer them.

Good writing is about quality; it’s about solid foundations and constant development, the honing of your skills; it’s about research, thinking outside the box, and being able to convey in words the images born in your mind.  Just as sharpening a pencil makes it easier to write, so does sharpening your mind and skills.

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Plot Thots: 14 Tips from Steven Spielberg

Steven SpielbergHappy New Year!  2015 has begun, and with it I’ve begun the research for my next novel; this one, 18th century historical fiction (rounding off the Northing Trilogy with the final book), is taking me back into the world of workhouse orphanages, royal naval vessels, and 1760s fashions and mores.  As I research, read, take notes and wiggle my way into a mental corset (to limit myself linguistically, morally, historically and socially to the times), I can still take advice from a more modern medium:  Films.

I like to listen to good film commentaries, and one of the best teachers in the field is Steven Spielberg; he not only discusses the filming process itself, but the thought processes and philosophy behind his decisions and choices.  Here are a few notes I’ve taken from his commentaries, and where I noted the particular film, I’ll let you know in case you want to hear it for yourself:

14 Tips from Steven Spielberg:

  • Give environments a “used” feel – gritty, creaky, broken-in.  Don’t explain every little detail, but take some things for “granted” to give an authentic feel. (Star Wars)
  • The subconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between dreams and films – emotions will be touched equally.
  • Running gags create humour (e.g. Indiana Jones hates snakes).
  • One problem solved leads to another.  One bad decision leads down – the main character must either decide to be redeemed by good actions, or be ruined (e.g. Darth Vader).
  • If you have point A & point B of your plot, don’t be afraid to explore, to fill in the blanks to get you from A to B!
  • The clothes have to match the characters to be believable.  (Can you imagine Indiana Jones without that iconic hat?)
  • If you edit cerebrally, you will lose feeling; rather, edit to “it feels right.”
  • Sometimes you need a pointer scene, though it needs to be subtle:  “This is where we are; this is where we need to be; this is how we get there.” (e.g. strategy scene before Luke destroys the Death Star)
  • If there’s no emotional connection, there’s no point in doing something for narrative clarity.
  • Contemplation time is essential in the creative process – don’t fill it with brain work that distracts.  Take a bath.  Do the laundry.  Draw; doodle; do a craft.
  • Get under the skin of a character, or culture, or landscape.
  • Every act has three events.
  • What is your main character’s “third place”?  The first place is home; the second place is work; the third place is a socializer.
  • Establish the mystery, and then begin peeling layers away.

[Plot Thots is my own shorthand for anything to do with mapping out a storyline.]

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