86-Ezra

Absent-Minded, Much?

As I typed away at a story idea, I scrolled down the page and suddenly came across a paragraph from an hour or so ago–

–or rather, the beginning of a paragraph, because all I’d written was “Also suppose that”

And I can’t remember for the life of me what I was supposing.  Let’s hope that this poor, dangling idea wasn’t anything too important!

86-Ezra

Beautiful Books 2017

This month, instead of Beautiful People (where you talk about your characters), Sky’s link-up is Beautiful Books, where you talk about your work-in-progress!

I’ve mentioned several stories/story ideas here, but my true WIP is a semi- western Gentle Fire.  “Semi”–because the setting is based off early 1800s Anglo and Mexican cultures, but the story world is an imaginary one.  Whoop, wait, I guess I should be talking about this in the questions!  So off we go.

What inspired the idea for your novel, and how long have you had the idea?

The 2004 film The Alamo inspired this story…and what particularly grabbed my imagination was the idea of a very young man thrust into a leadership position that would be hard to fulfill with success.  I wondered how I might handle such a situation…how someone else might handle that situation..and Durant’s character and motives and flaws appeared almost instantly (though he’s also grown and changed since I got the initial idea).

A contributing inspiration was one of my pet peeves.  I’ll explain.  🙂  Through 2016, I got sick and tired of the “you can succeed if you work hard enough” message that appears in a lot of Hollywood stories (just about every sports film I’ve seen and several artist/writer/performance arts films.  Plus a lot of the personal stories on American Ninja Warrior).  Now sometimes, work and perseverance do pay off, and they’re inherently good qualities. But they don’t absolutely guarantee success, and I remember the night my annoyance with this message solidified.  My family and I were watching The Martian (with liberal editing and TV Guardian, mind you), and after astronaut Mark Watney is stranded–alone–on Mars with no chance of rescue, he declares to himself, “I’m not gonna die.”  Dad pointed out, “See, that’s his determination.”  And I remember thinking, “You know he could still die, right?  No matter how hard he works?”  Yes, it was good initiative that Watney didn’t mope about his predicament or give up.  But that scene nonetheless struck me as hollow, because there was a distinct possibility of failure.

Okay, this is sounding cynical.  But here’s what I would rather see: stories like the The Alamo and The Lord of the Rings, where the characters fight for their values.  Principles and people they “are willing to fight, and possibly die, for,” whether or not they succeed.  I am definitely encouraged by those examples.  And I’ve worked all that into Gentle Fire.

I got the initial story concept in April, 2016 (and commemorated the event by making April 24th Durant’s birthday.  🙂 ).

Describe what your novel is about!

Durant wants to live in peace with his family in their frontier home, but the west is too far from the mother country to receive consistent help, and it has no organized government.  As the family struggles against wilderness and the lawlessness, Durant fights to help establish a government to safeguard his new home and make it prosperous.  And he is keenly aware of the consequences of failure.

Well, lookee there, I managed to write a short synopsis!  🙂

What is your book’s aesthetic? Use words or photos or whatever you like!

The landscapes are modeled after places in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, with some south Texas-inspired landscapes here and there.  The northern most parts of my imaginary world are mostly mountains; the midlands have slopes and woods dominating, and the southern most portions are desert-ish areas.  As such, the southern towns and homes are built from adobe (with a few lumber houses for those who could afford the material), while the northern towns and homes are often log cabins.  However, these varied landscapes all belong to one colony of one nation, and Mexicans and Anglos live together in several areas, and those towns/communities are often a blend of the two cultures.

Music has also inspired lots of plot points, story twists, and general settings.  These songs in particular:

“West, Pioneer!” (Annie Moses Band, American Rhapsody)

“Homeland” (Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron)

“In The New World” (Annie Moses Band, American Rhapsody)

“Listen to the Mockingbird” (The Alamo)

“Sell Our Lives Dearly” (The Alamo)

“Where You’ve Always Been” (Annie Moses Band, American Rhapsody)

“Home Away from Home” (James Galway & Phil Coulter, Winter’s Crossing)

“Flares” (The Script, No Sound Without Silence)

“Hard Times” (Annie Moses Band, American Rhapsody)

“Hymn for the Heartland” (James Galway & Phil Coulter, Winter’s Crossing)

“El Bexareno” (The Alamo [note: my keyboard won’t make Spanish accent marks; hope the meaning is clear enough!])

“Clancy’s Theme” (The Man From Snowy River)

“La Zandunga” (The Alamo)

Introduce us to each of your characters!

*looks at list of17+ characters*  Or…maybe just the most prominent ones?  But rather than narrating personalities, I’ll list the tropes from tvtropes.org that apply to my characters.

Durant

Beware the Nice Ones – Threaten Durant’s values or family, and he will not go quietly.  His reactions range from calling you out to insubordination (though he always tries the peaceable solution first).

Cannot Spit It Out – He’s definitely better with written communication.

Deadpan Snarker –  In some instances (the flip side of the trope above!)

Friend to All Children – He loves kids, adores his niece and nephews, and he likes teaching (and prefers the vocation of schoolmaster to anything else).

Knight in Sour Armor – He turns into this.

Not A Morning Person – And often wakened by nephews bouncing on him in the morning.

Alex huffed.  “Why are you always sleeping?”

Durant turned over.  “I beg your pardon, you rascal.”

The Quiet One – Initially, but he opens up once get he gets to know someone.  And he’s laid back and more cheerful around his family.

Why Did It Have to Be Snakes? – He hates public attention.

Mary

Deadpan Snarker – Definitely.

Determined Homesteader – She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty working with Wilson to establish their homestead.

Gentle Touch vs. Firm Hand – Mary manages to uphold a combination of the two.

Good Parents – To Alex, Luke, and later, Sophie.  She and Wilson want to have more children once they get settled in their new home (even though pregnancies are often difficult for her).

Happily Married – To Wilson.

Honest Advisor – Mary can see through smoke screens, recognize when both sides have a point–and she tells it like it is.

Humble Goal – She wants to build a comfortable home for herself and her family.

Mama Bear – Don’t mess with her kids, or you’ll be looking down the wrong end of her musket.

Team Chef – She absolutely loves to cook and to keep hearty meals on the table for her family.

Wilson

(I really need to draw a proper portrait of Wilson!)

Determinator – He has a type-A streak that can make him stubborn.

Determined Homesteader – Wilson is a farmer through and through and honestly prefers to get his living from the soil.

Does Not Know His Own Strength – While Wilson is incredibly gentle with his wife and kids, he sometimes falls prey to this. He once gave Durant a friendly back slap–that was so strong, Durant stumbled forward a step or two. And then refused to quit teasing Wilson about it.

Good Parents – To Alex, Luke, and later, Sophie.

Happily Married – To Mary.

Humble Goal – He wants land of his own and a working farm to pass down to his sons someday.

Mellow Fellow – He’s laid-back and cheerful–usually.

Papa Wolf – Mess with his family, and you’re going to wish you hadn’t.

(Don’t have a drawing of Barros yet.  Sorry.)

Barros

Papa Wolf – To daughters Teresita and Maria.

Reluctant Hero – Subverted; Barros defends his family and values without a second thought, he but he would rather lead on a social level than go into politics.  Guess how well that preference works out.

Reasonable Authority Figure – He generally listens to all parties, and never acts without thinking carefully. On the other hand, he can also make up his mind quickly when needed.

(I’m still developing his character, which is why there aren’t as many tropes for his personality yet.)

Sanchia

Friend to All Children – Possibly because she has several younger brothers and sisters (and a couple of older ones; I think she’s the third child of nine kids).

Humble Goal – To help support her family.  She loves them dearly.

Nice Girl – She’s warm and enthusiastic (without being overly effusive) and friendly.

Plucky Girl – She tries to cheer others up and isn’t easily discouraged.

Proper Lady – As per the social and cultural standards of the time (though in a twist on this trope, she’s not an upper-class lady).

Silk Hiding Steel – She moved to a foreign colony–alone–to work as a seamstress and earn money for her family .  At age 17.

Spicy Latina – Actually subverted to averted, depending on your perspective.  Sanchia is passionate for her values and tends to push others to fulfill their talents and callings, but she’s also down-to-earth and patient and cheerful.

The Social Expert – She’s outgoing, observant, and a good conversationalist!

(Characters not featured here: Alex, Luke, Sophie, Teresita, Maria, Jacobs, Harrison, Williams, Jackson, Dennis, Eduardo and Dolores, various others who haven’t been named yet.)

How do you prepare to write? (Outline, research, stocking up on chocolate, howling, etc.?)

Lots and lots of planning.  I need to know my characters thoroughly before starting the book, and I need to know what the story is ultimately saying, and where the major plot points are, as well as where everything ends up.  As such, I’ve been planning this novel for over a year, and only just beginning to write it.

What are you most looking forward to about this novel?

Writing Durant’s character and journey and growth (and he does grow a lot).  And I look forward to writing the world and how the characters react to it and influence it.  I also think the story and its settings and problems are fresh twists on the western genre, and so it’ll be fun to play with all those ideas!

List 3 things about your novel’s setting.

  1. Most characters refer to the frontier as “the western colonies” or just “the colonies”–since the new land was founded by the eastern government for economic benefit.
  2. Anglos and Mexicans live together in the colonies and eventually created a blend of cultures.   The land being harsh and rugged, the colonies of the two nations engaged in trade and came to depend upon one another a good deal.
  3. The story is set during the dawn of the west, during the 820s–30s.  As such, the fashions are 30s style (both Anglo and Mexican) and the weapons are muskets and flintlock rifles.

What’s your character’s goal and who (or what) stands in the way?

See the synopsis above.  🙂  Durant really just wants to be left alone and live in peace with his family.

How does your protagonist change by the end of the novel?

Spoilers!  This is actually a key point, so I’ll keep it under wraps for now.  (And maybe intrigue people by doing so…mwa-ha-ha!  🙂 )

What are your book’s themes? How do you want readers to feel when the story is over?

Again, spoilers!  I’d rather let readers figure this out for themselves!  As for the readers’ feelings…I’ve noticed a trend of bittersweet endings in my stories.  Think The Return of the King bittersweet.  So there’s that–but I would want the readers to feel quietly inspired.  I say “quietly” because sometimes it’s the subtle things that influence you the most.

Now, I considered whether to participate in National Novel Writing Month (in November)–and ultimately decided against it.  The reason is that I’ve switched writing methods.  Rather than typing at my laptop, I’ve gone back to scribbling with pen and paper and this actually works better for me.  Typing is handy, but it’s so fast that I often finish a scene or a line before I’ve planned the next–so I have to stop and think what comes next–and there goes all momentum.  But because handwriting is slower, I don’t come to the end of my imagination as quickly, and the momentum doesn’t slow down either.  And there’s no “backspace” key on a pen, meaning less incentive to edit during the draft.  🙂  HOWEVER it would be incredibly difficult to reach a handwritten 50k word count in one month.  I may twist the rules a bit to suit my methods, or follow along as well as possible for the first week or so, but nothing official.  And perhaps, I’m not doing NaNo–I might be able to write humorous blog posts for the rest of you writers to enjoy!

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86-Ezra

Writing Tip #14: Write What You Know

Not what you know about life or history or your interests–but what you know about your story.  For example, suppose you have a character who is developing slowly.  Much of his past and his motivations are still a mystery, but you do know that he values trust ultimately.  Write that down, and build on that information.  Because he values trust so highly, does that mean he will never betray anyone–or perhaps he did in the past, and that’s why he values it so highly now?

Or suppose you don’t know for sure when scenes come next in your story, but you have general ideas of what events happens when.  Rather than trying to organized this right off the bat, just write down whatever you picture happening at different plot points, and you can add to it or revise it later.

Writing down what you already know about your characters and your story gives you a base to build on, a kind of a foothold.   It also keeps you from getting bogged down in what you still have to figure out–because you’ll already have made a start!

86-Ezra

What if They Don’t Like My Layered Female Character?

I have read (and applauded) multiple posts about how to write a strong female character–a truly strong character, one who is strong because of her convictions. Her compassion. Her personality, rather than a superhuman ability to punch stuff and sass the guys.  So many posts, I can’t include them all, but here are my favorites: Hannah Heath’s input, Christine Smith’s guest post, Bella’s thoughts during her Writer’s Camp, and K. M. Weiland’s opinion.

What these posts do not cover, however, is how to banish fear–fear of seeing your female characters soundly bashed on Tumblr by readers who think that to actually like dresses will perpetrate the constraints of patriarchy and that a woman being physically weaker than a guy is sexist.

Maybe I’m the only writer who’s considered this. But I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve looked at my character Mary from Gentle Fire and wondered how much of a verbal beating she’d get from critics. Mary is married with two children, and most of her focus is on helping her husband build their farm and raise their sons (and later, daughter).  Plus other plot-related goals and struggles after this doesn’t work out the way any of them want.  Yes, she has dreams, and she has strengths, flaws, talents, and quirks–in fact, Mary’s drive is to do her job (whatever that may be at the time) and to help those who need her.   But at the end of the day (and the story), her job and her main sphere of influence is in her home.   And I just know that’s going to be popular with the general readership.

So I’ve thought a lot about how to handle this concern. Here’s my input to writing that true strong female character–without being afraid that others will criticize your characterization.

  1. Write a layered character.  Easier said than done, of course, but if your character is constructed with agency (she drives her parts of the story) and has strengths, flaws, quirks, talents, and non-talents–then you can take comfort that you’ve written a solid character, regardless of who criticizes her enjoyment of knitting, pride in cooking for her family, and hatred of snakes.
  2. Pinpoint what you’re afraid of.  What is all this imaginary criticism directed toward?  Your character’s general personality–or specifically that she spends a lot of time in her home?  (Or that she has a cleaning job, or that she’s the soft-spoken type, or whatever else is unpopular these days.)  If you can easily imagine someone criticizing the fact that your character doesn’t really contribute to the story, that could be your intuition telling you to make sure she’s a legitimate main character.  If, however, you can picture someone nitpicking your character’s interest in embroidery or that she’s skilled in household economy–those are details, not fundamentals.
  3. Adjust your thinking.  Here’s where I might really offend people, but I’ll try to be diplomatic.  Somewhere along the way, the idea of a homemaker became synonymous with the term “doormat”.  Along with the idea that she’s wasting her life.  Or wasting her talent.  But here’s the thing: being a homemaker takes incredible discipline, perseverance, patience, and diligence.  Double points if you add children into the mix.  You are responsible for protecting and guiding these children, 24/7.  How is that weak?  How is that a waste of time or talent?  And why do we applaud a male character who is willing to serve and care for others, but condemn a woman who does it for her family?  A homemaker character has to be strong in many different ways to do her job.  Strength comes with the territory here, just like we expect a fireman character to be physically strong.
  4. Let it go.  As the song says.  🙂  But seriously, unless your imaginary critics are offering polite, constructive criticism–why do you care what they think?  Or what any real critics say, for that matter, unless, again, they’re offering intelligent input on the fundamentals of your character.  If any critics, real or imaginary, whine only about the facts that your character loves children, likes make-up, and cooks a mean clam chowder–ignore ’em.

So, those are some ways I’ve found to beat the fear.  Feel free to add what tips and tricks have worked for you!

86-Ezra

Random, Rambly, Writing Thoughts

I’m sorry for my absence, guys.  I got sick out of the blue, and recovery has been kinda slow.  And I considered trying to finish Part 2 of “A Few Notes About Christine” during the down time, but had no brain cells for it, and ended up screen capping Daniel Deronda and Season 1 of Mercy Street instead.

Anyway, I came across this post by Hayden Wand and thought it would be fun to borrow the concept.  Because I too have noticed elements that repeatedly surface in my own stories:

Recurring Concepts

Alternate History

This pops up again and again, from my British political novel to my steampunk story Empty Clockwork.  I think it’s the natural result of the writer’s question “what if?” It’s also the result of an overactive imagination that also doesn’t want to be reined in by details.

Fighting Fears

I realized this only recently: the internal conflict is often against fear of one kind of another.  I think this idea sneaks into my stories because it’s a flaw I’ve struggled with all my life.  The “what if?” question is great for creativity, but it’s not helpful anywhere else.  🙂

Adult Fears

Forget Ye Olde Villain with his doomsday weapon; how about incompetent government officials?  Mob mentality in society and politics?  Fearing you made the wrong decision for your loved ones?  Or being afraid you can’t provide for your kids?  Losing respect for someone you once admired?  Unable to use your gifts and talents, either through physical limitation or societal apathy?  The list goes on.

Marriages During the Story

I guess I just want to see my fictional OTP weather it together as a married couple.  It’s an interesting dynamic–on the one hand, you have a companion through the conflict; on the other, differences of opinion on how to handle the conflict can cause further conflict.  That, and the time span of my stories is often a decade or more.  I don’t have the heart to keep lovebirds apart that long (though some of them do have to wait longer than they want!).

Recurring Settings/Topics

The 1820s–30s Time Period (usually in England)

I’ve mentioned this before, but it really is funny that this era pops up so frequently in my stories!  It’s a relatively overlooked period; the only books I can think of set in that era are Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, Eliot’s Middlemarch, and Dickens’ Little Dorrit.  (Some of Dickens’ other works start in the 1820s, but the main action moves to a later decade.)  Writing about the 20s–30s for me is like researching and exploring undiscovered territory.  And that’s just pure fun!

Politics

I can’t keep politics out of a story.  I’ve tried.  The most obvious example is the British political novel set in the (you guessed it) 1820s–30s– the entire backdrop is the debate over the Great Reform Bill and other national/international issues (like the July Revolution).  I can sense a frenzied market growing for this stuff already.  🙂

My western story Gentle Fire  heavily features frontier politics–I’ve drawn lots of inspiration from the Mexican Empire, the structure of north Texas and New Mexican ranchos and towns, and Anglo settler towns and counties.

And politics wander in and out of various others stories, or at least are implied to be in the background/part of the backdrop.  Even in one story where politics is not the driving force, my own opinions can be discerned if you read between the lines.

Sibling Relationships

Sometimes this is a driving point of the story; other times, it’s more in the background, but I can think of only two stories that don’t have sibling relationships–Empty Clockwork is one, and the other is a mystery set on a south seas island during the late 1700s.

Recurring Characters/Traits

Lower Ranks of the English Aristocracy

I have yet to write about a duke.  Not that there’s anything wrong with dukes, but since the title of duke is the highest in the English peerage, Lord X would be too busy with society and politics to do anything my plot requires.  The highest rank I’ve written about is the rank of earl; and I’m thinking of demoting that family anyway, because, again, the story needs them to live somewhere other than London and not to be tied up with society and national politics for most of the story.  (Local politics, on the other hand…)

Lord Fredericks (from my steampunk story), for example, is a viscount.  Lord Wetherell, from my literary novel, is a baron (the lowest rank), and various other titled characters usually don’t stray above the rank of viscount, unless they are minor characters.

Hero Lawyers

All the lawyers I’ve written about thus far have been the good guys.  No stereotypical corruption or dishonesty or hunting for ridiculous loopholes…in fact, most of my lawyer characters seek to reform this kind of corruption in their trade.  (I’m probably biased here, because my dad is a lawyer, and he’s as honest in his job as readers expect the hardworking everyman to be.)

Sarcastic Characters

From the outspoken sassmaster to the deadpan snarker, at least one character in each story has a tendency for quick and dry wit.  Usually more than one!

Outgoing/Energetic/Outspoken Characters

I’m as introverted as the next writer, but I’ve written a fair share of extroverts.  Who are allowed to be extroverts, mind, and don’t annoy the stew out of the quieter, therefore obviously more intelligent, characters (sarcasm!).  Actually, I have a habit of pairing introverted/extroverted characters as friends, siblings, or couples–this allows funny results and a nice way for the different personalities to balance each other out.

A subset of my extroverted characters is “extroverted bookish”–extroverts who like to socialize, sure, but also like to read and aren’t just bouncing off the walls the whole time.  🙂  Extroverts are great people, guys.  Be nicer to them in your stories.

Early Bird/Night Owl Couples

I do this on purpose to be funny.  *evil laugh*  But it’s a great way to get natural humor and natural conflict in a romantic relationship.  There are exceptions; both Mary and Wilson from Gentle Fire are early birds, but generally, if one half of a relationship is a night owl, the other half is the opposite!

Ages 25 & Up

Maybe it’s because the older I get, the more I realize how much I don’t know?–but my protagonists often end up in the late 20s and early 30s age range.  Any character younger than this is likely to be inexperienced and still figuring out his or her life goals.  In Empty Clockwork, Lennox is 23 years old and fits this bill perfectly.  Susan is a slight exception; at age 17, she wants to use her money to support something worthy before she marries, but she is still looking for another purpose in life.  Lord Fredericks, however, is 31; Henry is 36, and Ye Unnamed Character is in his mid-to-late 40s.

Durant from Gentle Fire is 22 when the story starts, and through mature for his age, he is inexperienced.  But he’s in his mid-30s when the story ends (maybe closer to 40; it just depends on the story’s time span).  Mary is 23 at the beginning of the story and also close to 40 when it ends, and Barros is in his early 40s when he enters the story and probably in his early 50s when it ends.

Inspired By…

Sometimes I watch a movie or read a book, and know that I have to write a character inspired by Sydney Carton.  Or Daniel Deronda.  Or Jarrod Barkley.  Or that inspiration comes from an actor’s performance or portrayal.  For instance, after I watched The Phantom of the Opera: The 25th Anniversary Concert, I knew it was a matter of time before I wrote a character inspired by Hadley Fraser’s portrayal of Raoul.  Same for Patrick Wilson’s portrayal of Raoul in the 2004 film, a performance that has actually inspired two characters.

Other inspiring characters/portrayals:

Samuel Diggs from Mercy Street

Mr. Green from Mercy Street

Milo Thatch from Atlantis: the Lost Empire

Billy Bob Thorton’s portrayal of Crockett from the 2004 film The Alamo

John Blake from The Dark Knight Rises

In other news…

Now, on a totally different topic, I’m thinking of making some changes to my blog.  The color scheme, for instance; I may go for a blue scheme rather than a red one.  Blue can symbolize depth and imagination, and that’s definitely an aesthetic I want .  And on that note–I might change the blog title.  The url will stay the same, but “Overflowing Mind & Pen” is a mouthful, and doesn’t really describe my content as much as the fact that, I think too much.  Instead, I like the title “Analytical Imagination”–which describes both content and the fact that I think too much.  🙂  Your thoughts?

86-Ezra

She of the Many Writerly Quirks

Writers are weird.  All writers accept this fact, and so do their families and friends (poor souls).  But beyond the general oddness of scribbling on hands and arms when no paper is in reach or else dropping everything to go record a fantastic new idea–each writer has his own personal quirks.  That are usually hilarious.  Here are mine!

1. When I get a really good idea, I get hyper.  Too hyper to finish writing down said idea.  I walk around, grab my phone, change songs on my ipod , do anything but take the pen and finish writing that idea.  I’m not sure why this happens.  Maybe I get energized by ideas?–and therefore can’t sit still in the face of an energy surge?  Whatever the reason, the more rational side of my brain looks on in exasperation as I dance around rather than record that perfect new idea which fills in a massive plot holes and ties together 7 other plot threads.

2. My story notes ramble all over the place and often contradict each other!  I pursue tangents in parenthesis, break off in mid-sentence to write something else, forget what I was going to originally write, get sidetracked with research, dump all my notes in one place, forget when and where I filed that one stray note…..  Then I get confused trying to sort through them all!

3. In most of my character casts, gentlemen outnumber the ladies.  I’m honestly not sure why I do this.  It’s never intentional; the ratio just ends up that way.  Maybe since I know how women think, I’m more interested in exploring a new mindset?  It may also be a subtle response to a pet peeve: I really, really hate it when females are tossed into a story just for the sake of having females in that story.  (And these characters are rarely influential anyway.)  However, there’s no favoritism when it comes to the needs of the story; if any character, male or female, isn’t needed, I remove the character.

4. I re-use ideas.  If a character doesn’t fit in one story, there’s a good chance I’ll find a place for him or her in another.  If an idea doesn’t fit the current plot, there’s a good chance I’ll simply stick it in another story.  As such, I don’t get too upset anymore when I have to cut things from my manuscript.

5. I cannot easily write in a messy space.  If there’s clutter in my peripheral vision, or I noticed piles of junk on my dresser before I sat at my desk, the messiness hangs over my mind like those cartoon cloudbursts that sit over your head and follow you around, and I just can’t concentrate easily.

6. I refer to my characters as if they were real people, e.g. “If Charles were here, he would do so-and-so…”

7. I refer to my stories by the setting or the era until I create a working title, e.g. “theatre story,” “lighthouse story,” “20s story”.  But one poor story doesn’t even have that much description; it’s still listed in my digital folders as “Story2”.

8.  In the same way, I give my characters nicknames before they get proper names.  The nicknames, however, are often names of TV show characters, other novel characters, and movie characters.  For example, I dubbed an incompetent leader character “Buckland,” borrowing the name of the very incompetent first mate from the Horatio Hornblower episodes “Mutiny” and “Retribution.”

9. However, it drives me absolutely NUTS to have an unnamed character…I can’t picture my characters well unless they have proper names.  Sometimes I’ll give “placeholder” names to a character–that is, temporary proper names until I find more fitting ones later–but then those names often end up sticking and I never find replacements.

10. I used to want as few secret story boards and character boards on Pinterest as possible.  This approach seemed tidier and more organized.  Now I make a new secret board for every good story/character idea I get–I created two story boards last night right after getting ideas for new stories.

11. I love finding the Meyers-Briggs types of each of my characters…but I usually do this after they’re developed nicely.  (Otherwise, I might accidentally write the character to fit the type, rather than finding out what type fits the character!)  So far, I’ve written characters of all 16 types, though I admit that ISTJs and INTJs dominate.  🙂

12. Semi-colons are apparently my favorite punctuation mark, often combined with run-on sentences to create a paragraph that sounds like something out a Dickens novel; not a bad thing in and of itself, of course, unless the paragraph becomes confusing with all the ideas contained therein; usually, the sentences all have a single train of thought running through them, or some overarching category or principle, but some sentences could nonetheless be put in their own paragraphs.

13. Irony of ironies…I have terrible spelling skills.  Maybe I’ve come to rely too much on the red underlining in Microsoft Word, but my spelling is atrocious on paper and on any program without a red underline to denote misspelled words.

14. I love color-coding my handwritten story notes.  Cobalt is the ink color I use for Gentle Fire; dark green is for Empty Clockwork; dark red is for my English political novel; pink or purple is for my theatre story, plain old blue is for that “Story2” I mentioned above, and the list goes on.

So, there are some of my writerly quirks!  Feel free to mention yours in the comments!

86-Ezra

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!

86-Ezra

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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86-Ezra

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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86-Ezra

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!