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Writing Tips for Perfectionists – Fear Formulas vs. Writing Tools

Has this ever happened to you?–you read an article with really solid writing advice.  All the tips make sense, and the author features a published book that used those techniques.  And you’re not exactly sure how to apply the advice to your work-in-progress—but you’d better figure it out.  Because if you don’t, your story will be somehow inferior.  Right?

This is called the Clever Mask of Insecurity Syndrome, and I used to suffer from it frequently.  It’s not a passion to learn about the craft of writing as much as frantic fear that you MUST apply the writing advice in ALL the articles you read.  Or else your story will stink.  The article authors are published, or they cite published authors who used the techniques–either way, all those authors know how to tell a good story, or else they wouldn’t be in print, right?  And if the writing advice makes sense, you’d be a fool not to take it.

The problem with this reasoning is that other writers, even skilled, published ones, don’t necessarily know what techniques will work for your story.  Suppose you come across an article explaining how to write in a thrilling, cinematic style.  But if your story’s scope and style is like the Arthurian legends and the Mabinogion–you’re better off analyzing Howard Pyle’s books or Tolkien’s and Stephen Lawheads’s stories.  The techniques that work for a modern thriller just won’t work for an old-style saga.  (If anything, it might create dissonance and pull readers out of the fictional world!)

I’m not saying to reject all writing advice out of hand.  Just make sure you understand what story you’re telling: the conclusions, the themes, the styles.  Everything that makes it what it is and that makes it original.  Techniques and writing advice are simply tools, and not all tools will work for your story.  You’ll gain a good understanding of what tools work for your novel the more you write and the more you research!

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Beautiful People – August Edition

It’s that beautiful time of the month again, and I’m going to bend the rules a little (as I usually do).  I’m featuring three characters–Wilson, Mary, and Durant–from my dawn-of-the-west, fantasy-of-manners story (Gentle Fire).  Mary and Wilson are husband and wife, and Mary and Durant are sister and brother.  And if you’re wondering why I refer to the gentlemen by their surnames, it’s because I first wrote a military portion of the story, and it made sense to use surnames rather than Christian names.  And the naming convention stuck.

Note: I’m still developing these characters, and so some of these details may change.  But as of now, this is what they’re like!

Wilson

(This is actually Wilson and Mary, and it’s the only picture of Wilson I have in my portfolio!)

  1. What is he addicted to/can’t live without?  Coffee.  Mary once joked that maintaining  good supply of coffee was a higher priority than getting glass windows for the house.  (Which is also kinda true, since Wilson made shutters for the windows that work quite well).
  2. Name 3 positive and 3 negative qualities about your character.  Wilson is easygoing, yet hardworking, and cheerful.  However, he has a type-A streak that makes him stubborn; and though he leads his family, he’s not the sort to step up in community leadership (he says he doesn’t know what would give him authority to do so).  And he doesn’t like to be restrained or controlled, and he becomes an absolute grouch if such a situation continues.
  3. Is he holding onto something he should get rid of?  Not that I know of.  Unless it’s the memory of working his parents’ farm, which his family eventually lost due to financial trouble.  This disturbed Wilson deeply, as he wanted to be able to work the land and pass it down to his sons.  And it’s one reason he moved his family to the colonies: to be able to gain and work their own land.
  4. If 10 is completely organized and 1 is completely messy, where does he fall on the scale?  *sarcastic laugh from Mary*  3 or 4.  He tends to be tidy or at least careful with his tools and farm equipment, but everything else…no.
  5. What most frustrates him about the world he lives in?  Winter.  (His answer.)  He gets stir-crazy after being cooped indoors for a while.   And he hasn’t seen fit to share a serious answer with me yet.
  6. How would he dress for a night out? How would he dress for a night in? Night out: clean shirt and his nice coat.  And that’s about it.  His preferred outfit is sturdy comfortable clothing in earthy tones that won’t show dirt.  And he always wears boots, and usually has his sleeves rolled up and his hands stained with dirt, sap, grease or stains from iron…in fact, he looks as though he’s in the middle of manual work.  This is because he usually is.  And even when he’s not, he still looks casual and somewhat rumpled; he’s never been a sharp dresser and has no sense of fashion.
  7. How many shoes does he own, and what kind?  Work boots and one pair of shoes…assuming he still has them, that is; he may have given them to someone who needed them more.
  8. Does he have any pets? What pet does he WISH he had?  If you count the temporary and accidental ownership of the snakes and squirrels that get into the cabin.  (His answer.)  He doesn’t wish for pets, but he does want animals for the farm: two goats, a pig, and some chickens.  The family already has mules.
  9. Is there something or someone that he resents? Why and what happened?  The creatures the get into the cabin.  (His answer, again.)  And he definitely resents losing his family’s farm back east due to financial trouble.  But he’s not the sort to spend too much time thinking about it; he found a different way to get land to pass down to his sons.
  10. What’s usually in his fridge or pantry?  Potatoes at the very least.  Mary may have added more foodstuffs since he visited the cupboard.  (His answer.)

Mary

  1. What is she addicted to/can’t live without?  She loves knitting.  She once said she could be happy living in a rock field if only she had colorful yarn to work with.
  2. Name 3 positive and 3 negative qualities about your character.  Mary is no-nonsense, but caring and hardworking.  But she gets overly frustrated with lack of common sense, she is sometimes too blunt, and she’s not much of a people person–she’s polite and gracious, but not naturally diplomatic or outgoing.
  3. Is she holding onto something she should get rid of?  Not that I know of; Mary doesn’t tend to get stuck in the past.  Or hold on to material things.  For one thing, there simply isn’t room in the cabin.
  4. If 10 is completely organized and 1 is completely messy, where does she fall on the scale?  5-6.  She tends to be tidy, but she also doesn’t fuss about everything being just so.  She has more important things to think about.
  5. What most frustrates her about the world she lives in?  I think it’s the lack of responsibility and initiative from other people, especially from those who are needed to pull their weight in the community or the government.  (Mary is the sort of person who can easily see what needs to be done and why.)
  6. How would she dress for a night out? How would she dress for a night in?  For a night out, she would probably fix her hair in a more elaborate style and wear her nice calico dress (red-brown  sprigged with pink and green flowers).  For a night in, she’d just wear her normal outfit: hair in a low bun, her sturdy work dress, and her favorite red gingham apron.
  7. How many shoes does she own, and what kind?  Her work shoes, and one nicer pair for special occasions.
  8. Does she have any pets? What pet does she WISH they had?  Pets, no.  Vermin that intrudes upon her territory, yes.  (Her answer.)  And she doesn’t really want a pet; there’s not enough room in the cabin for a dog or cat underfoot.  Although she let her son Alex keep the frog he caught, as long as he kept it away from the kitchen table.  (The frog later escaped, though.)
  9. Is there something or someone that she resents? Why and what happened?  Not that I’m aware of; Mary is not a complainer.
  10. What’s usually in her fridge or pantry?  Potatoes, cornmeal, flour, beans, bacon, salt, coffee grounds, the herbs she found in the woods, sometimes leftover meat pie, sometimes cheese from their neighbors, and spices and molasses when the family can afford them.  Mary loves to cook and takes pride in making good meals for her family.

Durant

  1. What is he addicted to/can’t live without?  He keeps his notebook on hand and records what happened during the day and any expenses incurred–usually a line or two as a memory aid.  He also records his nephews’ antics; and whenever he’s teaching, he keeps a record of his students’ progresses and skills and what they struggle with.  He doesn’t trust fallible memory with something so important.  As such, he would be upset if the book got lost.
  2. Name 3 positive and 3 negative qualities about your character.  Durant takes his responsibilities seriously–so seriously that he’s keenly aware of the consequences of failure, and this fear affects his ability to assess and decide.  He’s a hard worker, but sometimes gets distracted from the big picture.  And he’s persevering–to the point of being stubborn.
  3. Is he holding onto something he should get rid of?  He sometimes gets too easily discouraged by his own failures and setbacks, and he should let that go.  He tends to drive himself harder the more frustrated or discouraged he gets.  Also, in hindsight, he could probably have brought fewer books out west…but on the other hand, they are valuable possessions.
  4. If 10 is completely organized and 1 is completely messy, where does he fall on the scale?  This depends on what’s at stake.  His notes, letters, and papers are tidy, as are the lesson plans whenever he works as a schoolmaster, but everything else…no.
  5. What most frustrates him about the world he lives in?  The inefficiency of the colonial government.  The whole purpose of the government is to govern and dispense justice, and if the government can’t do that job, something needs to change.  He is also annoyed by any public attention–Durant never knows how to handle it and would prefer to work in the background.
  6. How would he dress for a night out? How would he dress for a night in?  For special occasions, he has a nice blue coat to wear, though he always wears his boots.  Otherwise, he wears his boots, his shabbier brown coat, and work clothes.
  7. How many shoes does he own, and what kind?  Durant wears his boots almost everywhere, but I think he does have one pair of dress shoes.  He just rarely wears them.
  8. Does he have any pets? What pet does he WISH he had?  No pets; and he’s neutral-minded about them.  He likes horses, though.
  9. Is there something or someone that he resents? Why and what happened?  He usually resents his own failures or weaknesses more than anything else.
  10. What’s usually in his fridge or pantry?  He has no idea (his answer).

 

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The Art of Storytelling – Creating My Compass

(Thanks to Bella for her title suggestion!  I was truly stuck.)

NOTE: I initially published this back in January, but decided to tweak the style and post it again.  This isn’t a guide for How To Write the Perfect Story; but the principles that have worked well for me.  😊

I once had no idea how to keep my stories focused.  I had good ideas, but I had a lot of ideas and couldn’t discern which ones truly belonged in my work-in-progress.  Was this phrase a better explanation of the theme?—or that paragraph a couple pages later?—or that note on my digital sticky notes?  Cue the pile-up of 172 pages of notes.  And I inevitably got overwhelmed.  Even more frustrating, after I sorted through those notes and reworded ideas (again), the story pieces added up—to the wrong picture.  Finally, through trial and error and through analyzing books and films, I created this list of points that help me build my story more easily and to keep it focused.

Articulate the Story Concept.  Or the general idea behind the story.  It could be a question to explore, such as “Where to draw the line in giving loyalty?”  It could be a character or situation: “A girl who was never taught to discern properly,” or a simple plot: “A girl takes up multiple hobbies to find her passion and talent.”  Or it could be a general theme, such as “different kinds of power (social, legal, abusive, and others) and what they can and cannot accomplish.”

Actually, I know the concept from the get-go; whenever I say, “Well, I have an idea for a story about…” that’s the concept.  But it could be narrowed a little–a general idea can become many different stories (which cleverly disguise themselves as plot bunnies).  So here’s a question that narrows the field: What draws me to this idea?  What do I love about it?  This not only helps keeps my story focused, it also explains what’s original about the idea, and it articulates my own passion for the subject.

As an example from my writing, one story idea is about two families whose children marry for mutual social and financial benefit.  This is the general idea.  The more specific idea is how these characters respond to the various social and familial expectations of them.  And what I like about the idea is the mindsets, values, and relationships of the characters as they handle situations in which they do not have a lot of control.  All very general, but it tells me at once that my idea about the fight between Enlightenment vs. Romanticism doesn’t belong in this story.

And then I tinker with the wording of the concept until it expresses exactly what I have in mind.  My ultimate goal is to understand what story I’m telling.  Not just the genre, but what I’m personally trying to say.  (More on that later.)

Specify the Story Conflict.  This definitely helps me discern which ideas (and subplots and side characters) belong in the plot.  And when I fail to specify the conflict, my story becomes crowded and confusing.  (*stares sadly at mountain of unfinished drafts*)  So do other writers’ stories—I may offend people with this example, but the film God’s Not Dead had a plot thread completely separate from the main conflict.  The conflict of the film is ultimately between skeptics attacking faith in the God of the Bible and Christians defending that faith.  While this is going on, a liberal feminist news reporter learns that she has cancer, and she eventually gets saved.  (Whoops, spoilers.)  But she does not meet or influence any of the other characters.  And since she gets saved near the end of the story, she doesn’t have time to contribute to the main point by defending her newfound faith.

I get why this plot was included: so that a character (and by extent the audience) could hear the Gospel.  But that character and her story does not enhance or contribute to the ultimate conflict.  That detour simply uses screen time that could have been spent on the main characters.  And on that note, a better way to include the Gospel would be to have the ex-Muslim girl remember the Gospel to strengthen herself in the face of persecution or perhaps try to share the Gospel with her family.  That would have contributed to the conflict, and it would have been an awesome addition.  (Seriously, the writers should have explored that character and her situation further!)

So, defining the story’s conflict will thin down those plot bunnies.  But here’s a catch: conflict often has two layers: surface conflict, and then what I call “root conflict.”

Surface conflict is a clash that fits the story’s concept, but that happens apart from—or because of—the root conflict.  The root conflict is the ultimate battle of the story, the clash that explains what’s really at stake.  It’s often internal conflict (but not always).  A good example of these two layers is the film Inception.  The “surface conflict” is the attempt to plant an idea in a man’s mind through his dreams.  This is something that had never been successfully done—oh, and there’s a deadline for this attempt.  But the root conflict is Cobb battling his own guilt and fear and grief.  He cannot let go of the past, and at first refuses to confront his problems.  His stubbornness and his burden endanger his goal and the safety of his team.

So I write down the obvious conflict in my story and then ask how that conflict came to be, which helps identify the root conflict.  (Or vice-versa, and I think about what action might be prompted by the root conflict.)

Make the Setting Influence the Action or Affect the Characters.  Years ago, I entered a short story contest with several guidelines: the required setting was the Titanic, and the contest theme was “Women and Children First.” I wrote the story of a couple who met on the ship; and though they weren’t close friends, the man stepped back so the woman could get into a lifeboat and escape.  Measured by the contest guidelines, the story and setting worked.  But when I looked at that story a few years later, I asked: how does the Titanic enhance the plot?  Sure, the event is a classic example of chivalry, but without the contest parameters, my characters could do what they liked and could be moved to a different setting with no big change to the plot.  Red flag that the setting was just painted scenery, and not a place with impact.

In my story Empty Clockwork, however, the setting is a late-Victorian world with strict social norms and tradition but with a steampunk twist:  scientific dabbling is a popular hobby for the rich.  And “secret” labs in the basement are an essential part of any grand house.  This setting creates conflict for Lord Fredericks, a brilliant, self-taught scientist, who can’t capitalize on his skills because he is also an aristocrat and not supposed to do manual or tradesman’s work.  The setting also affects Henry*, a doctor who is passionate for his work, but who can’t get the wealthy hobby scientists interested enough in his ideas to fund his experiments.  The third character affected is Lennox, a young man who teaches classics at Cambridge and therefore can’t get anyone to take him seriously as a scientist.  Because art and science don’t mix, y’know.  And Susan, heiress and Lord Fredericks’ ward, can’t find an endeavor she thinks worthy to support with her money because of the complacent attitudes in society.  The setting directly affects the main characters, creates conflict, and points to my theme (which I will not reveal here because spoilers).

*inspired by Henry Jekyll from the 1994 concept album of Jekyll & Hyde.  As such, I might eventually change his Christian name so as not to be sued by Frank Wildhorn, Leslie Bricusse, and the ghost of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Discover why the Story Matters to the Characters—and to Me.  Goal, stakes, conflict…those can be found anywhere.  A character could set the goal of opening his own business, with the stakes of providing for his family, and face obstacles in the lack of money and an affordable building to rent.  But why doesn’t he go another route to provide for his family?  Why does he choose this hill, the hill of the story, to fight and possibly die on?

This point is a cross between the character’s motivation and the stakes of the conflict–it’s why the goal matters to the character.  Not just the external repercussions of failure, but the internal consequences.  The more personal the story conflict and stakes, the more the readers will care about the characters and their struggles.  For example, Inception deals with complex concepts: the actions of the subconscious, the unique nature of dreams, and how each can be manipulated.  Truly engaging stuff—but the principles matter because of how personal they are to Cobb.  If he can complete the inception attempt, he can go home to his kids—but ironically, experimenting with dream manipulation and inception is what tore him from his family in the first place and created the guilt that plagues him throughout the story.

The author also needs personal motivation, and a second question I ask is: why does this story matter so much to me?  What are my own personal stakes?  This is partly practical; I’m more likely to finish the story if I’m passionate about it.  But understanding the personal stakes is another tool that narrows the focus of the story.  Suppose a writer believes that it’s ridiculous for 18-year-olds to choose their life passions before college.  They only just got out of school; they haven’t observed and experienced life to the degree that a 30-year-old has; how on earth can teens be expected to know what they want to do with their lives?  With that question, that drive behind the story, the writer can quickly discern that his other story idea about how the elderly are ignored doesn’t fit in the plot of this story.

Work Backwards from the Conclusion.  Articles and tutorials say “figure out your ending first.  Write toward your ending.”  I never understood this.  Doesn’t the outcome depend on what the main characters choose?  Won’t choice A create one outcome and choice B create another?  Should I just make up events regardless of what the characters chose to do?

Not necessarily.  The ending is more than the final dramatic events.  It’s also the conclusion of what the story says.  Which is an extension of what the author is trying to say.

Oh, please.  There’s no need to ask “What am I trying to say?”  Stories are just to entertain, right?

Right.  And wrong, because every story, even the fluffiest, feel-good novel makes some statement.  Even as untrue as “everything will turn out okay if you dream hard enough.”  Or whatever.  Continuing to offend people with my examples, The Battle of Five Armies film had no idea what it was ultimately saying.  Fight Ye Olde Evil?  All Gold is Evil?  Something Vague About True Love?  Reclaiming the Characters’ Ancestral Homes?  Hobbits Are the Saviors of the World?  (Epic fail on that last point, as Bilbo was demoted.)

By contrast, the Lord of the Rings (book and film) made a clear statement with its ending: sacrifice is the price of freedom.  When Frodo leaves Middle Earth, it highlights the price that warriors and defenders pay so that others may live in their homes in peace.  This theme is shown throughout the story.  Didn’t Frodo leave the Shire in the first place to protect it?  Didn’t Sam help Frodo no matter the cost to himself?  Didn’t Aragorn conceal his lineage and walk in humility for years and protect the Shire unseen? Didn’t Tolkien lament the fallen defenders all through his story?  Sacrifice is the conclusion—sacrifice for the land and peoples of Middle Earth.

Once I recognize what I’m saying with my story, it’s easier to work backwards from that and figure out what events and final conflicts would fit the story.  (And I often have an inkling of how everything will turn out, even if it’s cliche and obvious.)  Then I ask: where do the characters need to be, emotionally, physically, and mentally to drive the final events?  Then I create conflict and events that push the characters to that stage of readiness.

What’s ultimately important is that I understand what story I want to tell.  This means more than the genre.  It’s the big picture: the concept of the story, the tone, the stakes, what I’m trying to say, and what I want the story to accomplish.  Do I want it to be lighthearted or a cautionary tale?  Is it just a practice project or something I’m passionate about?  Do I want it to amuse or criticize or inspire?  If I don’t know what story I want to tell, it will end up dissonant.  It will read as though it tried to say one thing, but ended up saying something something very different.  It has happened in the past–and I’ve seen it happen to too many other storytellers.  The makers of the Hobbit films clearly did not know what kind of story they were telling.  In a film trilogy called The Hobbit, Bilbo is almost a side character, and the story focuses on the other races of Middle Earth.  The franchise tried to be dark and epic, but the slapstick humor and roller coaster chase-and-battle sequences undermined that tone (not to mention that when Smaug’s fire doesn’t burn rotting tapestries, tension vanishes anyway).  The main plot was the quest to reclaim Lonely Mountain, but the subplots didn’t really enhance that—Thranduil’s white gems, for example, and the romance between Kili and Tauriel, and Tauriel as a character in the first place.  *ducks volley of rotten avocados*  The result is three films with some good aspects, but with so many conflicts, characters, and plot threads that the story feels stuffed.  *ducks more flying vegetables*  And the root problem is that screenwriters didn’t seem to know what story they wanted to tell.

Now, confession time: I don’t have every one of these points articulated for every one of my stories.  Several are missing the ending.  A couple are missing the general concept.  One does not have specified conflict.  And that’s okay.  Stories take time to develop.  Some take more time to grow than others.  And these points are just general guidelines to help me build a strong foundation for my story.

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Writing Tip #13 – Muscle Through It

Sometimes, you get stuck on a scene that’s dry and stale and is incredibly hard to write–and the problem doesn’t have an easy fix, and all those writer blogs and articles are no help.  Sometimes, you just have to push through and write that stiff-sounding scene.  But as you push through, think in terms of little victories or progresses–two new sentences is two more than you had before.  One paragraph added is one more than you had before. If you disciplined yourself to write even though you didn’t want to, that’s good.

My sister finds it helpful to write funny notes to herself in parenthesis so she has something to laugh at as she reads back through the difficult scene.  I notice which phrases or snippets of dialogue are good even if the rest of the prose seems dry.  Listening to music is always a great motivator.  And remember, the sooner you muscle through and write that difficult scene, the sooner it’ll be over with!

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More About Lennox

So in this post, Lana wanted to learn more about Lennox, my character from the steampunk story (which now has the working title of Empty Clockwork).  So here is the long-promised post, complete with artwork!

First of all, Lennox didn’t grow up in England.  He was born in Brittany, France, but his artist father had difficulty finding work there.  The family moved to Switzerland, but faced the same problem, and so finally removed to Italy where the father found employment painting for wealth British, French, and Italian families.  Lennox grew up in Italy, speaks Italian fluently, and even after moving to England, he retains a faint Italian accent which becomes more apparent on certain vowels and syllables.

When Lennox was 18, he and his mother moved to England so he could get a university education, and he attended Cambridge.  (His father had died in an influenza outbreak some years earlier; see here.)  But Lennox ended up teaching himself much of what he wanted to know, particularly about chemistry and general science.  Mainly because he was curious about things that the curriculum there didn’t cover.

Random facts:

For all he’s a caring and friendly guy, he has a horror of tears.  He never knows how to handle such a situation.

When Lennox is around, there is rarely an awkward silence.  Or at least, it doesn’t last for more than a few seconds; he always finds something to say, especially if the pause is uncomfortable.

He always makes a huge mess whenever he gets a project out, such as paints or research; and if the work space is his own, he leaves the mess until he’s finished or until he gets tired of the chaos.

His mother taught him to play the piano, a skill he fought tooth and nail as a child because he thought it was a sissy pastime.  But his mother persevered, and Lennox finally learned to play in spite of himself.

His father also taught him to paint; Lennox didn’t mind learning this, although he says he doesn’t paint very well, didn’t practice enough.

He cannot swim, and nearly drowned after falling off a bridge once.  Fortunately, someone went after him and pulled him out.

He’s 23 at the beginning of the story.

He adheres to social requirements to please his grandfather, but he doesn’t give a rip about convention in the privacy of his home.

Lennox is the sort of person to pull a book off the shelf and then stand there in the walkway reading the volume.

Feeling just a wee bit lost in London society…

He cannot resist exploring new things and places…he’s incredibly curious, and sometimes even explores places he shouldn’t…

He never means any harm, he just wants the answers to his questions.

Now I forgot to link up with Beautiful People last month; the time for the link-up has expired, but I’ll still post the questions!

What’s his favorite place he ever visited?  Hard to narrow down; Lennox likes seeing anything and anywhere new.  He definitely enjoyed different parts of the Italian countryside as a child, as his family moved from place to place, seeking employment.

What’s one mistake he made that he learned from?  Erm…if this means during the story, I can’t say, because spoilers.  Before the story, however, it was probably something around the lines of “don’t perform chemistry experiments an hour before dinner if there’s any chance of a stench or a mess.”

What was his favorite subject in school? Or favorite thing to learn about?  Scientific history, physics, and chemistry.  He taught himself all three.

What’s his favorite flower/growing thing?  He likes painting landscapes, but I don’t think he has a favorite plant.

Has he ever made someone cry? What happened?  Nope, and if this ever happens, it will be a complete accident.  Lennox is the sort to go out of his way to make sure a conversation partner or friend is comfortable in the situation.

Would you consider him a reliable or unreliable narrator?  Unreliable, only because Lennox is too trusting.  And sometimes misses details, especially if he was focused on something else or just not interested.

What does he dream about at night?  Lennox says this is really nobody’s business.

He’s gone out for a “special meal.” What would he eat?  Definitely cake (spice cake with currents or sponge cake with frosting).

Does he have any distinguishing or unique talents?  He find and exploit loopholes like a boss.  He’s generally cheerful, regardless of the circumstances (on the other hand, if Lennox isn’t happy, ain’t nobody happy).  He can also see the potential in almost any idea.

What’s at least one thing he wants to do before he dies?  A lot…but one is definitely to figure out what to do with his life.

So, that’s a little more about Lennox!  Thanks for reading!

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Beautiful People Link-Up: About the Author

This month’s BP features the author of the characters instead of the characters themselves, which is a fun twist.  🙂  You can find the link-up and questions here.

How do you decide which project to work on?

It’s very rational: I sit down and calculate how many story elements are inherent in the original idea + an estimation of the time it will take to finish + how much time I actually have + how much coffee I’ll need to complete the project, and–

Just kidding!  Usually, ideas for characters grab me and won’t let go, and so I have to follow and see what the story is.  It’s  entirely out of my control, I assure you.  Other times, the process is a little more rational: sometimes based on whichever idea is the most vivid and interesting; sometimes it’s based on which story idea has the most pieces put together (e.g. one with the concept, conflict, etc. worked out); and sometimes, it’s whichever idea looks like one that I can finish quickly.

Which often turns out to be a complete fantasy.  🙂

Even when I settle on a project, I tinker with others on the side, and jot notes for any new ideas. Sitting now in my digital folders are at least 10 novel ideas (with tons of notes for each), along with notes for a couple of characters and concepts that don’t have proper stories, but that won’t leave my imagination either.

At the moment, I’m actively working on my semi-western Gentle Fire, and I tinker with my steampunk story here and there.  Also, the steampunk story finally has a working title: Empty Clockwork!  And speaking of, I’ll get that post about Lennox up sometime before the apocalypse hopefully soon.

How long does it usually take you to finish a project?

In the words of Ebeneezer Scrooge, circa 1850–something: “Why do you delight to torture me?”

I don’t finish quickly, partly because of my health problems and fatigue–but partly because my concepts end up fleshed out into a Very Long Novel that will take more than a few months to pound out.  But I comfort myself with the hallowed words of Charles Dickens:

“It is delightful to find throughout that you have taken great pains with it [the story] besides, and have “got at it” with a perfect knowledge of the jolter-headedness of the conceited idiots who suppose that volumes are to be tossed off like pancakes, and that any writing can be done without the utmost application, the greatest patience, and the steadiest energy, of which the writer is capable.”

Do you have any routines to put you in the writing mood?

I listen to music that matches the tone of my story (e.g. The Alamo soundtrack before I work on Gentle Fire) and sometimes crochet a little before I write, using that time to think about the story and what I’m going to write.

What time of day do you write best?

Always in the early morning, when the rising sun melts the grey sky into soft blush and liquid gold, and the house is a still and peaceful place where my imagination can soar–

*dog barks at someone walking by the house*

*a sibling gets up earlier than I expected*

*air conditioner breaks*

Kidding!  It changes from day to day, and I think it has to do with however much brain fog I’m dealing with.  Sometimes I write best in the wee hours of the morning; other times, I can barely comprehend English during that time.  Other times, I write best in the late morning; still others, late afternoon is the sweet spot.  Keeps things interesting, eh, what?

Are there any authors you think you have a similar style to?

Erm…I have no idea.  I’d like to think I have a style like Dickens’, but it’s probably a cross between Bronte and Austen.  I asked my siblings, and Chris lovingly reminded me that he hasn’t read any of my stories because I haven’t finished one yet.  (Thanks, bro.)  Gingersnap said she couldn’t think of any comparisons and that I kind of had my own style.  Enkie said Louisa May Alcott, but also said that’s the only author she could think of off the top of her head, and that it wasn’t correct at all.  That I kind of have my own style.  Emmett also said he hasn’t read any of my stuff, and so he also couldn’t think of any comparisons.

Why did you start writing, and why do you keep writing?

I started writing because I always have story ideas bouncing around in my head, and at age 12, I hit upon one that I thought was good enough to become a book.  (Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.)  But it was enough to start me on this journey, and I keep writing because story ideas still bounce around in my head–stories that I would love to read someday.

I also truly enjoy the process and the artistry of it all, despite how hard it gets.

What’s the hardest thing you’ve written?

Either the travel brochure for a writing class assignment (that brochure was as dry as ashes, people)–or the picture book I started in order to finish something before I die.  The picture book was hard because it was short, and I didn’t have room to explore or flesh out its concept.  It felt like shutting my mind up in a box.

Here’s a fun fact: Gentle Fire was supposed to be a short story.  But I kept wondering what brought Durant to the very situation in the opening, and also what happened after the story.  And then I thought of some answers.  And the ideas wouldn’t leave me alone.  See Question #1.

Is there a project you want to tackle someday but you don’t feel ready yet?

My English political novel with the working title of Method and Manner.  Actually, I’d love to focus on this one (Chris told me the other day he would put flowers ‘pon this story’s gravestone), but I don’t have time for the hefty research required.  When I have time for that research, however, I shall thoroughly enjoy it!

What writing goals did you make for 2017 and how are they going?

I hoped to finish the draft of Gentle Fire by the end of the year, but as it’s nearly August and only the beginning of the outline sits in my folder, that will probably not happen.  I hesitated to set any other goals because I so successfully fail at meeting them year after year.  It’s quite the impressive record.

Maybe I should switch to creating Mid-Year Goals?  Breaking out of the cliche box and all its expectations might help.  🙂

Describe your writing process in 3 words or a gif!

Help, coffee, help!

Kidding again!  It’s more like Think, Organize, Write–only that order gets shuffled around a little.  Okay, a lot.  With confusion thrown in.  Also a constant sparring match between my inner critic and artist’s soul.

And coffee does fit in there somewhere.  🙂

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Artwork Wednesday – A Small Twist

Today’s post will feature quotes from my characters, not pencil-and-paint work. Two reasons for this: 1. I have no artwork prepared for this week, and 2. I’m working on drawings of Lennox for my upcoming post about him (stay tuned!)  Hopefully, I’ll have drawings to show next week, but for now, I’ll post verbal artwork instead.

Now, not all these quotes will make it into the finished story–but they reveal a good deal about the characters.  🙂

Quotes from my unnamed literary novel (set in Yorkshire in the 1820s–30s):

“Tell me quickly,” said Charles, nearly exasperated.  “I am late already.”

“By a full two moments?” called Thomas from the other room.

 

“Charles, if Lord James thought our station an impediment, he would not pay me such marked attention,” Dorothea said.  “Are we not to trust his judgment as well as ours?”

Charles sat down.  “His judgment might be impaired by his need for money.”

Dorothea lowered her work and sent her brother a severe stare.  “That is not fair to Lord James or to his father.  They do need money,” she continued, resuming her sewing, “but Lord James is prudent and honorable.  If he feared our new wealth would corrupt his family’s rank, I do not think he would pay me any attention.  And we are honest with each other.  If he finds me lacking in any thing, he will tell me, and I shall attempt to satisfy him.”

 

“You will forgive me for being indelicate,” Dorothea said, looking up at her brother “but you apprehend a good deal that does not happen.”

 

“Really, James, you are newly-married and ought to be a good deal more punctual than this,” Harriet said, “–especially since you are escorting your wife.”

Dorothea was about to reprimand this remark, but James said, “At least I have made some improvement.  Where is Father?”

“Papa!” Harriet called down the hall, “Even James is ready now!”

 

James, as always, refused to take coffee; he had for years observed the peculiar sway it held over his otherwise self-controlled friend, and would himself remain free of such mastery.

 

“The only dissatisfaction I have with curls,” said Harriet, “is that they become untidy with the least provocation!”

 

“I am all right,” Charles insisted.  This was not as consoling at he intended, for he would say the same if he were in the final stages of consumption.

 

Alice suddenly pointed at the dog and announced: “Buppy.”

Mr. Carter smiled and knelt by the dog’s head. “Would you like to pet her?”

Alice glanced up at her mother and then ventured forward, but she looked at Mr. Carter very seriously.  “He bite,” she prophesied.

“No, she will not bite. But let her sniff your hands first.”

 

“Will you sit down?” Alice asked. Mr. Carter nodded and sat on the small chair nearby. Alice stared at him and patted the grass with both hands.

“Oh, on the ground,” Mr. Carter said, lowering himself to that level. “My mistake.”

 

James raised an eyebrow.  “Are you flirting?”

“Yes,” Dorothea answered lightly, “but with impunity, as we are already married.”

James laughed.

 

The whole plot is kicked off by Dorothea and James deciding to marry–so there’s no point in keeping that secret!

 

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Weekly Artwork Round-Up

No point in calling it Artwork Wednesday, because this post is (a) not featured on Wednesday, and (b) ridiculously late.

One art problem I’ve faced recently is how to deal with reference photos. Printing every photo I want to draw from uses a lot of paper and ink. Sketching with my laptop precariously balanced on my knees is not only bad for the laptop and my arms and legs, but eraser crumbs get between the computer keys. So…why don’t I just rest the laptop on a table? Because I hate, hate, hate people seeing the reference photo on the screen or seeing my drawing when I’m first sketching. It’s not so bad if the drawing looks like a human with clothes on, but before I get the sketch to that stage…

Anyway, I have  five pictures to show this week!

First up is Sanchia, a character from my semi-western story with a working title of Gentle Fire.  I picture Sanchia so vividly that it was great to capture that on paper more or less easily!  Also notice that the wool skeins drape over her wrists so that I don’t have to bother drawing hands like yarn skeins do in real life.  Especially since she’s paused her work to listen to someone talk.

This is the cabin that Durant and his family live when they first move to the western colonies.  The table is just slabs of wood set on sawn logs, and there are no proper shelves, cupboards, or even beds yet.  But it’s their own house on their own property, and that’s enough for them once they survive the journey.

Nonetheless, Wilson promised to build proper shelves and beds as soon as possible.

I drew this with charcoal–and there’s a funny story to go along with it.  Ever since I began drawing, Dad tried to get me interested in charcoal drawing, because we had a kit and tutorial series somewhere in our detached office.  I was too busy learning to use pencils, however, to turn my attention to charcoal.  Fast forward a couple of years to when I bought an art set only for the little art mannequin to use for drawing poses.  But charcoal pencils were included in the set–and out of random curiosity, I used them to draw this.  And–

I. Love. Charcoal.

I promptly informed Dad about this and thanked him for mentioning that medium and the art set out in the office.  And for the record, my parents are right 99% of the time.  🙂

My brother Chris suggested I draw concept art for my story to get an idea of the atmosphere and aesthetic–so I took his advice and started watercolor sketches in my leather sketchbook.  This is the rancho of another character: Barros (father of Maria, whom I mentioned here, and Teresita, whom I haven’t mentioned yet. 🙂 )

Another watercolor sketch, this one of the books Durant brought to the west.  The bottom one is a book of natural science; the next one up is a biography; the third is a small volume of poetry; the fourth is a novel of some sort; the fifth is  a brief history of the nation; the sixth (the long, grey one) is a primer; and the topmost book is Durant’s personal record book where he jots down financial information, a brief description of the day’s events, and sometimes his nephew’s antics.

Speaking of nephews, here’s Alex, Durant’s eldest nephew.  With his uncle’s hat on his head–Durant has a habit of dropping his hat on the head of whichever nephew is nearest!

Part of me wants to draw Lennox again, and get back to A Tale of Two Cities fanart–but I can’t stop drawing my Gentle Fire characters!  So who knows what artwork I’ll have to showcase next week!

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The Writer’s Tag – A Sort of Resume

I love tags and memes.  Have I mentioned that?  So when I came across Lana’s post, and saw that she tagged any reader who wanted to do it, I was immediately interested.

The tag covers all kinds of subjects, which is why it feels like a unique writer’s resume–but a fun resume.  🙂

What genres, styles, and topics do you write about?

Genres – Mostly Crossover!

Half the stories I write or plan to write are genre crossovers.  The story set in the tropics in the year 1781 looks at face value like a high-seas and island adventure with the necessary pirates.  But it’s actually a mystery, one with an island setting (and therefore called “Island Mystery” at the moment.  Aren’t I clever? 🙂 )  The semi-western story has the trappings of a typical pioneer story–but it’s actually a fantasy-of-manners set in the 1820s–30s west/southwest.  And with an emphasis on politics.  My British political novel looks like…well, a political novel–and it is, but it’s technically alternate history and social critique.  And my steampunk story looks like any number of genres, but is a solid combo of steampunk, social sci-fi, hard sci-fic, and social critique.

Now that I think about it, a lot of my stories could be listed under “social critique” as well.

The funny thing is, I didn’t plan on writing genre crossovers–I just thought, “Hey, what if X historical event happened differently?  And I’m annoyed by Y, so let’s make that a plot point as well.”  Or whatever.

The only problem is how to market these stories.  I read an article that recommended putting it like this: “It’s a (particular genre), but folks who like (other genre) might also enjoy it.”  Except that my crossovers thus far have been so solidly blended that to market one genre would ignore another key foundation of the story.  I’ll figure it out, hopefully before I publish anything.

Styles – It Varies

Really, this varies with the story setting and time period.  If the story is set in 1830s America, I try to match the general style of language in letters and diaries from the time.  If the story is set in the 1890s (such as my steampunk story), I try to match the style of novels written during the turn of the century.  I read a lot of period fiction written during the same decade of my story to get an idea of the style of the day.

However, the writing styles I aspire to generally are Dickens, Bronte, and Tolkien.

Topics – Rather Obscure

If any of you readers know of stories with these kinds of topics, feel free to say so!

Settings in the 1820s–30s

British, American, Irish, you name it–a lot of my stories are set in these decades. I think it’s my tendency to explore the ignored questions/aspects of history; compared to the more popular Regency, Victorian, and Wild West eras, the 1820s–30s are slightly obscure.  Which baffles me, because interesting things were happening socially and politically in both England and America!  On the other hand, I have a taste for social mechanisms and political complexities, so this could be a personal preference thing.  Speaking of…

Politics

I cannot keep politics out of my stories.  I’ve tried.  It keeps slipping in.  Of the 10 novels I’m planning/writing, only 3 don’t feature politics…and even then one of those three might make political statements in the subtext.

Tejanos (Mexican Texians)

This began after I watched the 2004 film The Alamo and re-read the American Girl Josefina stories.  Now, at least five stories feature Mexican characters!

Multitudinous Character Casts

Blame Dickens and Tolkien for this one.  I’m not afraid to cut characters who end up being superfluous (though they often reappear in a different story), but I definitely start with a large cast.

Couples who marry long before the story ends

This happens in nearly every story!  It’s just more interesting to see how the couple pursues their goals with a significant other.  Anyway, romance in my stories often contributes to the main plot–usually as a further exploration of a character’s values, goals, and motives–but at the same time isn’t the ultimate point.

As such, I’ve wondered whether to keep who-ends-up-with-whom a secret.  One the one hand, it’s almost pointless if the couple gets together before the end.  On the other, I do like to be careful about spoilers.  What do you readers think?


How long have you been writing?

Officially since I was 12 or 13; un-officially all my life.  I’ve been making up stories as long as I can remember, usually adventures with the Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings characters.  One of my favorite stories to play was having these characters stumble into our world around the time the movies were released, and me and my other friends having to keep them hidden–otherwise, fans of the movies would freak out and mob them, or blackmail them, or try to turn them into celebrities.

When I was little, I did write and illustrate a six-book series (in the style of the American Girls books) starring me and my 100-Acre Wood friends.  These stories were published by School Scissors & Stapler, Inc., despite having no plot whatsoever, only vignettes that somehow connected in my six-year-old-mind.  🙂

Then at age 12, I got a idea about a some kids who stumble into another world (so original!) and journey across the mountains with grown-up comrades.  It seemed like the best idea ever, so I began to write it down, and never looked back.  Even though that story never panned out, it gave me the discipline and momentum to write more stories!


Why do you write?

Because I have stories in my imagination that I want to read someday!  I also love exploring my own thoughts and ideas and intriguing concepts through writing (one of many reasons why I cannot write a short story–simply not enough time to flesh out a concept!).

I also love creating and playing with characters.  They provide a good mirror of reality, and often help me see life in a new way.


When is the best time to write?

I grab any time available.  I prefer to write in the early morning (don’t laugh; I do prefer this even if my habits are night-owlish) and definitely prefer silence and solitude.  However, I’ve learned to tune out my surroundings–closing my eyes helps and helps me focus on my mental image–and stick earbuds in to block noise.  🙂


What parts of writing do you love, and what parts do you hate?

Love:

  • That flash of inspiration for a character idea/story idea I know is good
  • On a similar note, the thrill of a new idea
  • Ideas coming together, especially after a struggle to get them there
  • Creating and developing characters
  • Writing a scene I know is awesome!
  • Writing more than I thought I would during the allotted time
  • Getting other people interested in my ideas and getting great feedback
  • Exploring my own ideas, clarifying my thinking through writing, and inspiring myself by it!
  • Writing characters I absolutely love
  • Writing fun or fluffy scenes as a break from dark or dangerous plot threads

Hate:

  • Short stories.  Not enough to work with, people; come on, give me concepts to flesh out!
  • Having to write scenes that are boring, but necessary to the plot
  • Having to cut a plot or character I like (though I often re-use them in another story)
  • When the characters won’t talk to me and explain what they want to do in the story!
  • Non-writers assuming that (a) I’ll have a book finished fairly soon and (b) I’ll definitely get it published
  • Repeated questions about when the book will be finished and published
  • Consistently having to say “no, not finished yet” to the above questions
  • Knowing people are judging/confused about this
  • No, I’m not annoyed by that; why do you ask?
  • Having a whole day/hour/block of time to write and NO IDEAS
  • Writing slower than I expected to

How do you overcome writer’s block?

One of two ways: muscle through it, or take a break.

I  start with the first and often ask, “Okay, what is the problem?  Why is writing this character so hard/planning this segment so difficult?”  After a little thinking, I’m usually able to realize that I’m forcing the character into a box rather than letting him do his own thing, or that I don’t know the character well enough, or that there isn’t enough conflict in this part of the story, or that a plot thread doesn’t contribute to the point.  Identifying the problem shows me what to focus on instead, e.g. I need to get to know this character better, or to remove those ideas that don’t contribute.

If I’ve tried all that and remain stuck, I take a break.  I’ll get unstuck eventually.   🙂


Are you working on something at this moment?

Yes, the semi-western (with a working title of Gentle Fire).  I also jot ideas for other stories as they come!


What are your writing goals this year?

Well, I intended to finish a draft of Gentle Fire  by the end of the year…but the year is half over and I’ve barely started.  Not sure whether to keep that ambition and get as close as possible to the goal, or to drop it in favor of something more attainable.  Beyond that, I’m really not sure; new health problems have cropped up, and I need to manage the symptoms and work around difficult nights/days.  So I generally take it day by day, e.g. today, I’ll do a little character development and draft the rest of that scene, and then we’ll see.

Okay, I tag Julia and Bella, if they’re interested!

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My Preteen Poetic Spirit

I wrote this poem when I was 12 or 13. Other “poems” of mine will never be revealed, and will be discovered in a long-forgotten folder after my death, because they had no meter or rhyme whatsoever. But this one amused me when I remembered it last night. 🙂

For many people

Springtime brings

A number of wonderful

Beautiful things

Like birds and trees

And flowers and bees,

But for me

Spring

Only brings

Allergies.