WE Master Class – What’s the Point of This Anyway?

For those just joining me, I started going through the Writing Excuses Master Class several weeks ago. I haven’t posted every entry of homework and the like, so this week’s post jumps forward into story structure. I’ve done this because, well, who wants to see every bit of someone else’s homework? And because I would rather point emphatically to the Writing Excuses Podcast and encourage authors to go try this for themselves.

That being said, let’s jump in.

The first episode regarding story structure is a bit of a mesh between what I want to call theme and fuel. Theme defined as the overall purpose of the novel, and fuel being defined as the way in which you encourage readers to keep reading the book.

I say this because much of the conversation questions what the book is about and what the author is aiming for, which would be the theme. Now, having done this writing thing for a while, I can admit that when I deliberately hunt for a theme at the beginning of the writing process, I constantly fall short. Maybe it’s the discovery writer in me, but I have to get the rough draft down first and then I can spot the major themes of the novel.

Something that I took away from the class, and that I will be using in my current editing project, is asking what answers the reader will be looking for in the next chapter. Doing this deliberately, chapter by chapter, is sure to have an effect on the novel as a whole and I am excited to put it into action.

The assignment from this particular episode is rather involved and required that I go out and choose a favored book/movie/show and reverse engineer the plot structure, paying close attention to questions asked and answered and any subplots that ran throughout. I did do this, but I am not going to share it here because… Yeah. Who wants to read my homework?

 

Advertisements

Keeping Tension – October Round Robin

Welcome to another Round Robin discussion! This month we’re focusing on keeping up the tension in a book from start to finish.

After several years writing books, I can sense when a scene is slacking now. It derails me and I pick up my crystal ball (no, really, I have one) and start hashing things out using three “writer’s tools” from my personal toolbox.

If you haven’t heard of the writer’s toolbox, I suggest reading Stephen King’s On Writing, as well as frequenting the Writing Excuses podcast. Both are invaluable.

So!

There I am, writing along, when… ugh, this scene is dragging. Why is this taking so long for me to write?

Because we know that if it isn’t interesting to the writer, then it certainly won’t be interesting for the reader, right?

First tool in the box – POV.

Basically, I have to ask if I put the right Point of View character in this scene. Are they too competent for the situation?

For example, if we have a broken down car, we obviously want a mechanic there to fix it. But that’s not drama, that’s not tension, we need someone incompetent in there to see what they do.

Second tool in the box – Stakes.

Oftentimes, when a scene is slacking, it means I need to up the stakes for them. This doesn’t have to be life or death stakes, it can be something smaller. And really, it’s the smaller things that help ground us in the character anyway.

For example, if the character is lost in the middle of a town because somehow your plot got them there. Not only do they want to figure out where they are, but we give them another want as well… like, say, a burrito.

I’m sure we can all share the frustration of being lost in an unfamiliar town, and we can share the feeling of hunger. These aren’t huge stakes, but they are stakes, and the character’s repeated mantra to find a burrito adds some humor.

Third tool in the box – Meshing.

This one is simply the realization that we can combine two scenes together to make a stronger narrative. I use this one quite a lot in the editing stage. When I do my first read-through, I mark each chapter by color based on their strength. Anything yellow can be combined, and I’ve found the book as a whole benefits.

And that’s it! That’s a peek into my writer’s toolbox. Check out what my fellow authors have to say in this month’s round robin.

Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Anne Stenhouse  http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com/
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
A.J. Maguire  https://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/ (YOU ARE HERE)
Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1oh
Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com/blog
Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/
Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com

Book Review – Black Powder War by Naomi Novik

Our family started the Temeraire series on the road trip to New England and we were excited to see where the story went in this third book. Laurence and Temeraire are now staples in our household, to the point that we’ve taken to nicknaming our cats after the dragons.

(Nicknames only, because to me they will always be Pest – for constantly sitting on the back of my chair while I’m typing – and Nuisance – for his equally disruptive behavior while I am writing with pen and paper.)

It is particularly delightful to see my ten-year-old son getting involved in the narrative. He enjoys Temeraire’s confusion with humanity, and more important to this novel, his conversations with Lawrence regarding the treatment of dragons in human society.

There wasn’t as much battle in this one, but the tension is still there. Without spoiling the novel, there was a lot of flying to be done and intrigues that had to be averted as the greater war against Napoleon took a huge step forward.

We’ve already snagged the fourth book and will be starting it soon. If you’re a family that enjoys reading, and particularly reading together, then this is a series I highly recommend. The narrative is beautiful and the characters are memorable.

Plus, dragons.

 

September Round Robin – Reading is Cool!

A couple of years ago my son informed me that he hated reading. Being an author, this made my heart hurt and I set out to fix this viewpoint by writing a story for him. I kept it short because he is young, but I did not spare him in language, plot, or character.

41SPrUMbf+LI even published it myself so that he could have a real book to read in his hands, something he could point to on Amazon. The novelette featured a man cursed into wolf form by an evil witch and it’s titled Torven. You can find it on Amazon if you’re really curious.

But I also had my son involved in the making of it. So he heard the rough draft as it was written, chapter by chapter. I paused frequently so he could ask questions, which often turned into suggestions. It amazed me how much he wanted to be part of the process, as opposed to simply reading it.

I’d written him into one of my novels once already, and that had him at least partially interested. Mostly he wanted to hear the parts of the story that featured his character, but at least he listened as I read it.

When it came to Torven, though, he was really excited to tell me where he thought the story was going and we ended every session with a conversation. He asked how Torven was cursed, and I reminded him that this was part of the story and if he wanted to know then we had to keep reading.

And when we met the witch, he wanted to know if Torven killed her. Again, I told him he had to keep reading to find out. But with this one, he adamantly informed me that Torven HAD to kill the witch or it wouldn’t be a good story.

Interestingly enough, he also went into how the witch became a witch. As an author, I like to twist things around and see how wicked people were good once and got corrupted, but in my son’s view, there was never any good there.  If I recall correctly, he said the witch was born from a bog.

That never made it into the book but I remember praising him for such a creative backstory. The image of murky, stagnant water boiling and swirling until the deadly witch rose from its depths has always stuck with me and I may ask him for permission to use that one day.

As for other people in my life who claim they either don’t have the time or don’t like to read, there isn’t much I can do. It seems to be popular to hate reading these days, people shrugging the task off and saying they’ll watch the movie when/if it comes out. I’m sure all writers find this attitude disheartening, but that doesn’t stop us from creating novels.

Happily, I married a man who enjoys reading, and my son is warming to the written word. In the grand scheme of things, I think I’ve done all I can to remind my family that reading is cool and creativity shouldn’t be underestimated.

Check out what my fellow authors do to help encourage reading in this month’s Round Robin:

Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea

Victoria Chatham http://www.victoriachatham.com

Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1ly

Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/

Anne de Gruchy https://annedegruchy.co.uk/category/blog/

A.J. Maguire  https://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/ (YOU ARE HERE)

Anne Stenhouse  http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com

Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com/blog

Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/

Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com

 

 

Interesting Characters – WE Master Class

For the last several weeks I’ve been undergoing the Writing Excuses Master Class put out a couple years ago. If you’re not familiar with the folks at Writing Excuses, I highly recommend them. They don’t require a ton of your time (15 minutes long, though it does sometimes stretch to 20) and even if they talk about things you already know, it’s a discussion that might open you up to something you hadn’t heard before.

A prime example is their conversation on interesting characters (Episode 10.5).

This concept was not new to me. I knew about character agency and stakes and accountability walking into it, and yet I was able to glean a little bit more from them. While this series of blog posts are supposed to be focused on a new novel (fictional characters body snatch people via a new reader’s app) and I have been having fun working within that venue, I found this episode helped one of my other works in progress more.

Castle of Three Kings follows Kevin Campbell, a sixteen-year-old boy who finds himself stuck in this cursed castle. The world is interesting, the reason for the curse is solid, and the major players are all colorful or tragic, but Kevin is… well… boring.

Somehow I managed to write 3/4 of a novel with a boy who has only the vaguest character arc, tons of agency (he doesn’t want to die), and zero personality.

Part of me wants to blame this on the fact that I typed the whole first draft instead of doing it by hand (my preferred method). Whatever got me into this position, I’m here now and when I start editing next month I will be concentrating on his arc using some of the methods from this class.

In particular, I’ll be playing with the sliding scales of competency and proactive and likability. These were discussed in other podcasts they’ve done, but they mention it again in this one.

To learn more about the Writing Excuses Podcast and its lovely, talented authors, you can go here.

For kicks and giggles, I’m going to go ahead and put a snippet of the new novel here. This is one of my character auditions from the last lesson.

Kenzie Graham knew the voices in her head weren’t real. She’d lived twenty-three years without them yammering about violins and villains and she was damn well going to live another twenty-three without them. Preferably more than twenty-three, but at this point she was willing to bargain.

She strode down the hall, clutching her Jefferson’s School of Technology computer pad to her chest and avoiding eye contact with fellow students. It wasn’t that she was shy, or even the fact that she was scared – well, petrified – that kept her head down.

No, she couldn’t look at anyone because anytime she did it seemed to trigger Sherlock.

Yes, Sherlock, as in Mr. Holmes himself, the fictional detective that should have stayed fictional. He leaped to vociferous life whenever she locked eyes with someone, running through a list of deductions faster than she could blink. Which in some cases was helpful, he did bark to life in time to warn her away from a spiked drink, but after thirteen hours of his incessant badgering, she was quite done.

Professor Hildon’s experimental app had a major glitch and no amount of extra credit was going to keep her quiet.

“Woah, Kenzie, wait up!” A familiar voice called from behind.

She turned on instinct, surprised and pleased that Cory Miller would seek her out. But Sherlock roused, she could sense him stirring, and as Cory sauntered up there was the familiar barrage of insights; tousled shirt, fraying at the hems of his jeans, sand on his shoes, and the faint odor of decomposing seaweed.

Underachiever, Sherlock said. You can do better.

Kenzie tried for a smile. “Hey, Cory.”

“You bailed early last night,” Cory said with an easy grin.

Please, there’s nothing easy about that grin, Sherlock said. Look at his eyes, he’s worried.

Gritting her teeth, she told Sherlock to stuff it and looked away from Cory. “Yeah, I had homework to do.”

“Oh, right,” Cory said, sounding disappointed.

Crestfallen, my dear. The word you want is crestfallen. HE obviously wanted to spend time with you.

Kenzie held tighter to her computer pad, one part elated at this news and the other part damning Sherlock to hell. Or wherever fictional characters go when they die.

Assuming one believes in an everlasting soul, I should say I don’t have one and therefore don’t qualify for either heaven or hell. But chin up, Kenzie, if he is so distressed, it means he couldn’t have been the one to spike your drink.

“Well of course he didn’t,” Kenzie said, and to her mortification, she realized she’d said it out loud.

Cory blinked at her. “Are you OK?”

“Not really,” she said, going for the truth because why the hell not? It wasn’t unheard of for software to go bonkers, especially in its developmental stage. But she had signed an NDA before taking the extra credit, so there was only so much she could impart without jeopardizing her academic career. “Have you seen Professor Hildon?”

Character Auditions – WE Master Class Blog

Two weeks ago I mentioned the Writing Excuses Master Class put out a few years back. This is a free class that you can access via audio or transcript on the Writing Excuses website and I recommend it to anyone and everyone who enjoys the writing process.

Moving along in the course, I have my initial idea: a new app that can be downloaded directly into our consciousness goes horribly awry. Famous fictional characters bleed into our victim’s minds and take over, bringing new life to some of the more heinous creations in literature as well as the heroes meant to catch them.

I recognize that I’m going to be reading a lot of classics to widen my scope of literary characters I can choose from. The low-hanging fruit, in this case, would be Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty and I think I’m going to go ahead and use those two, if only as introductory players that help the narrative get moving.

The next assignment was character auditions, which is a new concept for me. Normally the character comes before the idea, and the plot grows out of what I know about them. This is an organic process that I have enjoyed over the last decade of writing, but I’m going to admit that I enjoyed doing character auditions.

The act of trying different voices helped broaden my understanding of the idea as a whole. From the surly detective who has to figure out which character is infecting which avid reader, to the dirt-poor boy who hacked his way into downloading the app, I was able to explore different ways this story could go.

In the end, I was stuck between two choices, which I will share now.

Detective Josephine Margot, first person POV. When writing out her first 500 words, I got a Blade Runner/Johnny Mnemonic feel to the narrative that I liked. She’s a cynical woman who gets called to a murder scene on a prominent college campus, which she is equal parts annoyed about and relieved to be working. Because as long as she’s on this case, she doesn’t have to be downtown at her brother’s wedding.

Makenzie Leeds, third person POV. When writing her first segment, I got a lot more humor, which I enjoyed because I always enjoy humorous voices. Also, I grabbed the low-hanging fruit and had her infected with Sherlock Holmes. In this scenario, she’d downloaded the app as part of an extra credit assignment and found herself plagued with an additional voice in her head.

I may bounce between the two before I settle, depending on what the assignments show me in the coming weeks. Until then, I’ll play around with Jo and Kenzie and see if maybe I can blend them together.

 

August Round Robin – Creation of a Writer

When we last visited the subject about what prompted our writing careers, I mentioned an assignment from the sixth grade where the teacher read the opening of a story and then told us to write what came next.

While I still consider that assignment the launching point for my love-affair with the written word, there were other influences too. I’ve always been a dreamer, letting stories play themselves out in my head, but I didn’t always love reading.

Or at least, I didn’t love finishing a book. I liked getting started, being introduced to impossible worlds with magic and mayhem, but I didn’t always connect with the characters on the page. When that happened, my happy brain took off and made the story my own, adding characters that I enjoyed better.

I suppose that could be seen as an early form of fanfiction, but I was in grammar school so I can live with that. And really, I didn’t start writing them down until that fateful assignment in the sixth grade.

I really should track that teacher down and thank her.

Throughout high school, I kept a special notebook that held all sorts of stories in it. Mostly fragments, scenes that came to me in the middle of class that entertained me. It wasn’t a full novel, not even a short story because there was no structure to the notebook.

To look at it now, it seems a testament to my own personal attention deficit disorder. A scene begun on page five was interrupted by a series of scenes about an earthquake rattling the school, forcing me to become the hero and help lead my fellows out of the rubble.

So what got me from that chaotic fictional buffet to full novel writing?

To be honest, I think it was my mother’s electronic typewriter. And I know mentioning that archaic bit of machinery is likely to date me, but I’ll own my age for the day.

One of my earliest stories was written after we visited family in Alaska. I loved the cool air and rugged mountains and vast seascapes that we saw there and, per typical youthful exuberance, commemorated the visit in fiction. As with everything back then, I focused on the people in my life, so the main characters were none other than myself, my brother, and my cousins.

But what I remember most about writing it, was sitting at the absurdly large desk in the living room and pressing the keys on that typewriter. Something about the whirring-snap sound it made every time I hit a letter filled me with absolute glee.

There was a permanence to the story I was writing. It was there in the whirr-snap of every letter, my own personal mark in the world.

This is probably why I have a very noisy keyboard. It may not have the same whirr-snap sound of the typewriter, and I can delete things almost as quickly as I write them now, but the sense of accomplishment is still there.

Check out what my fellow authors have to say about what started their writing careers in this month’s Round Robin…

Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/
Victoria Chatham http://www.victoriachatham.com
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/
Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1ke
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
A.J. Maguire  https://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/ (YOU ARE HERE)
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Margaret Fieland http://margaretfieland.wordpress.com
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com