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?

 

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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.

 

Master Class in Writing

A few years back Writing Excuses put out a series on their podcast that they titled their Master Class. At the time I was a single parent working full time and going to school and didn’t have the extra space in my life to fully commit to the program.

But that’s changed! And because the lovely people at Writing Excuses keeps an archive – and even an easy link to this particular series on their site – I can access this class.

For free, I might add.

Now, I am actually going through the transcripts and reading them because I learn better that way. And because this is my writing blog and I can do whatever the heck I want with it, I’m going to go ahead and keep a log on how I am progressing.

I highly recommend the Writing Excuses podcast to any author out there – both aspiring and already published. If nothing else, they help remind me that my struggles in producing readable/relatable fiction are shared by many.

Normally I get ideas and then start writing, which leads to several false starts and concepts that never bloom to full life. The first couple of lessons in this series is about playing with ideas, digging deeper, and brainstorming until you find the right fit.

The concept that helped the most was asking who the idea would help or hurt the most. For instance, if we had an app that could download books into our minds, it would help students the most. But it would probably hurt teachers and the underprivileged.

Why yes, this is the idea I’m going to play with during this class. Thanks for asking.

This led me to the question of how we can abuse this technology. Uploading too many books, for instance, might cause information bleed – where narratives mix to become something new. And there’s dirty hacking, for the underprivileged who want access, which would have glitches and consequences of their own.

Next week, I’ll post the winner of my “character audition” for this book. The assignment is to try out five different characters for the main POV of the novel and thus far it has been fun.

If you’d like to try this Master Class, it is free on the Writing Excuses website. Just scroll down until you see it in the left margin. You can’t miss it.

Auditioning Characters – Experiments with the Writing Excuses Class

I’ve been a long-time fan of the Writing Excuses Podcast. I’ve listened to everything they’ve put up to date and was completely excited when I learned they were making this year into a sort of “writing class” format. If you haven’t listened to them and you are an author, aspiring author, writer, whatever-title-you-give-yourself then I highly recommend you check them out. Start with season 10 so you can join the class. I promise you won’t regret it.

The latest assignment for the class is to “audition characters” for your story and because this concept was entirely new to me I have been struggling to complete it.

Normally my stories start with a character and then the plot sort of sprouts out of them and their motivations, so I’m thinking I must have done the first exercise quite a bit differently from many other people. For the sake of this post (and all other subsequent posts dealing with this class) I’m going to go ahead and share portions of my “homework.”

Here’s the story idea we’re working with:

Ashton Bainbridge is a wildlife photographer who manages to catch something on film he never should have seen; a fight between a shockingly large dragon and a shadowed creature with fangs and an obvious lust for blood. As any sane person would do, Ashton flees the scene only to be targeted by the vampire once he gets back to civilization. But the vampire isn’t the only creature who’s caught Ashton’s scent; Percy Pru Alturas, socialite, night club owner, and dragon, isn’t ready to just watch Ashton die.

Part of a dying breed, Pru’s millennia-old mission has always been to protect and serve humankind. But the resurgence of vampires is a harbinger of something darker, something older than she is, and even Pru isn’t certain she can protect Ashton from what’s coming.

So you see I have the two main characters already set; Ashton Bainbridge and Pru Alturas. This is a mashing of an older novel concept about dragons that I have been sitting on for several years and a newer story idea about vampires — which is very weird for me because I think I’ve made it very clear I hate vampires.

Now then, I’m always one to go ahead and stretch my limitations, try new things and what have you so I’ve gone ahead and named Pru and Ashton as “Audition #1.”

Audition #2:

Tessa Pines is a veterinarian doing fairly well for herself on the professional front. She has her own practice, loyal patients – or at least loyal pet-owners, and a condo she can breathe in. She refuses to be bothered by the fact that her little sister is getting married for the third time and fully intends to endure the scrutiny of the family with dignity and aplomb. She likes being alone.

When several cattle and horses under her care begin mysteriously dying, Tessa finds herself scrambling for answers. With every death Tessa’s reputation is slowly tarnished and in a desperate attempt to find out what is going on, she goes on a personal stake-out at one of the ranches. But what she discovers is far more horrifying than any disease she might have imagined.

Obviously what she would discover is the whole vampire-dragon standoff thing, but you can see how the whole feel of the story would change with it. I like Tessa, even if she does feel a bit like a modern romance novel character there in the first paragraph.

Audition #3:

Doctor Isaac Jefferson is a thirty-something analyst working in JPAC (Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.) His work takes him across the globe in search of military personnel who have gone missing but his most recent assignment to the Solomon Islands brings about an unexpected surprise.  

I stopped myself on this one because, quite frankly, I’d rather tackle JPAC in a less fantastical setting. (AKA – no vampires, no dragons, just good old fashion mystery.)

I have two others for this assignment but I’m not going to share them. One is a YA translation of the novel and I really, really, really have a hard time writing YA. But, hey, I wrote the audition anyway. The other is a 1920’s murder mystery based in Egypt. Both of which have promise but I find myself drawn more to the first two auditions.

In any case, this was an interesting exercise and I’m glad I took the time to do it. Tessa’s story actually sounds like it has a little more meat to it than Ashton’s but I haven’t quite decided yet. I’ll keep playing around with them before I make a concrete decision.

I do know that I love Isaac Jefferson and the whole JPAC scenario. I had the opportunity to visit CILHI on Hawaii once and remember being fascinated with what they do there. I’m setting him off to the side to simmer while I work on other things.

Thank you, Writing Excuses! This has been fun so far and I’m looking forward to what comes next.

Writing the Unpopular

Persona is almost finished. In fact, I’ve got approximately two chapters left to write. This is three chapters more than I had outlined, but something happened near the end that surprised me and, now that I look at it, really makes sense for the story. 

It’s always fun when things work out this way. It means my subconscious brain probably knew this was coming and it took a while for my conscious self to recognize it.

Anyway, I’ve mentioned before that Autumn tends to spur me into creative-mode. I get new ideas for different stories, or better ideas for current projects, and I start to have a crap-ton of fun. September through December tend to be my happiest months because I am in the middle of this surge of creativity.

I don’t know why, I don’t know how, I just know it works.

And this year, having tackled my first historical fiction with Persona (heavy on the emphasis with fiction) I have come up with a new project dealing with the Civil War.

Well, the Civil War and the frontier. The two tend to go hand in hand since soldiers who fought in the war and survived would head West out of some instinct to get as far away from the battlefield as possible.

This will be challenging on several fronts. First of all, I really don’t know much about the Civil War. I’ve picked up some documentaries to help remember what I was taught in history class and, funnily enough, have been enjoying them whenever I have a minute between homework and housework and the kiddo.

Secondly, Dan Wells joked about the fact that nobody reads Westerns anymore. (He’s one of the authors on Writing Excuses, a podcast I sincerely hope every author listens to.) Given that this project would eventually find its way into the West I had to cringe a bit. But, I’d rather write a book that I would love to read than write a book based on trends.

Even if that trend is several years long.

No, really. I checked out the Western shelf in Hastings to discover it was drastically smaller than every other section and had all of five prominent authors on it — including Louis L’Amour.

And I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by this since I’ve never actually read a Western myself. I watched Lonesome Dove when I was a kid, and High Noon in school, but I can’t say I’ve actually picked up a book that followed gunslingers and the like.

I did read a truly terrible romance novel based in the Old West. I won’t name the author or anything, but I will say that I scoffed through the first fifty pages and then stopped reading.

So I am faced with a new challenge here. I love the story concept and the character — I always start with a character and this one is named Alex Huntly — and I’ve wanted to write something that dealt with the West and pioneers since I was in High  School. But the truth is that it probably won’t find a home with a publisher.

My gut instinct is to write it anyway. I imagine a lot of people would tell me it is a waste of time, but then I have to examine why I write in the first place. And the truth is, I don’t write to please other people. I write the story in front of me because it’s the story that inspires me; be it fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction or, Heaven help me, a Western.

So! As soon as Persona is done I’ll start the groundwork on this new novel. If only three people in the world read it then that’s fine.

On a side note, I’ll be using NaNoWriMo to complete the last 15,000 words of Usurper. Trenna fans will be happy to know that this third book in the Sedition series should be out next year, barring any complications with the publisher.

 

Book Review : Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

I’ve been a fan of Writing Excuses for a long time now.  I promised myself that I would start to read all of the books from the authors who put out Writing Excuses since they take the time out of their busy schedules to put out this podcast for free.  I started with Brandon Sanderson because he writes Fantasy and I love to read and write Fantasy, so that just made sense.  I read the Mistborn series, which I loved.

And now I’ve read Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal — and she totally gets props for having a cool name.  (I mean, really, say her name three times fast.)

Being a Jane Austen fan, I walked into this book with a small amount of trepidation.  (Of course I did, have you heard of the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?)  But as I realized that the author was handling the setting, the time period, the language, with the respect it deserved, I relaxed and truly enjoyed this story.  While I saw who the dastardly man was before he was revealed in the book, I was too busy trying to figure out which man Jane would end up with.

I was cheering for two specific men, and since I don’t want to give it away for anyone I will refrain from any spoilers.  Still, the fact that I was guessing while halfway through the book says something about the writing.  One of the saddest moments for me when I’m reading a book is when I figure out the ending before I get there.  This book managed to keep me uncertain straight up until … well … I can’t say because then it would give it away.

Basically, this is a classy book.  It’s a book that takes romance without running it through the hot-and-steamy-bath that everyone seems to want these days.  It’s refreshing and wonderful and I can’t wait to read the next book in the series.  (Mothers, you can totally let your daughters read this book.)