A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum…

I’m a writer.  You’d think that I’d find a clever way to tie in the random title to the topic of my post today.  Not as much.  It’s just there ’cause it’s a famous title and uses the word “forum.”

I’ve found that writing requires a lot of support.  It’s a difficult craft to master, and getting the opinion of other authors regarding use of technique, plot holes, and research is important.  Pursuing this artform can also be a soul-crushing experience; it’s good to have friends who understand what you’re going through.

To this end, I’ve found that online forums are a great resource.  Beyond the advantages listed above, they are also a great place to find beta-readers and get encouragement.  Here are some that I frequent:

Mythic Scribes – If you’re a budding fantasy writer, you need to visit this site.  There are a lot of helpful, civil, and knowledgeable people who can help you.

48Days.net – Though forums for writers have some discussions on marketing, it’s definitely not the focus.  This forum is all about trying to make money, and a lot of  writers gather there.  I’m finding it a nice place that offers a different knowledge base.

Writing Forums – So far, I’ve found that genre specific forums seem to offer more than generic writing forums like this one.  Still, this is one is active, and I’m maintaining a presence there.

Sci-Fi Writer’s Forum – I haven’t explored this one too much, but it appears to be active.  I’ll get more involved in this community once I start my next project.

Goodreads – I’ve been told that this is a great place for authors to interact with their readers.  I’m having a hard time figuring out exactly how the community works there, but I haven’t given up yet.

What about you?  Any forums that you’ve found useful?

Creating a Novel – Discovery vs Outline Pt 2

Yesterday, I posted about the process of discovery writing here.  Today, I’m covering outlining, but, first, a quick anecdote about a short story I’m writing.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of discovery writing is the unexpected twists that come out of nowhere.  I’m writing about a teenager who has an intense disdain for one of the village elders.  As I’m portraying an encounter between the two characters, this line pops up on my screen:

It was the first time Sange had ever heard his father express anything but love for any rule.

Wow.  I had no idea that the elder was the character’s father, but the discovery took the story to a new level and made a lot of sense.  Of course, I had to go back to add some clues so the revelation will flow with the story, but the benefit to the overall piece makes the extra work so worth it.

Given that I enjoy my typical process, you may be surprised to learn both that I outline scenes often and that I intend to outline an entire book for an upcoming project.  I can hear you asking, “Why?”

Scene Outlines:

The best advice I’ve read on being a productive writer is to have a plan for what you’re going to write before you sit down.  Sometimes, this advice isn’t needed.  I sit down, and the words flow.  Other times, there is absolutely nothing more intimidating than a blank Word document.  In those times, it helps so much to figure out where you want the scene to go via an outline.  The following is a scene outline that my collaborator and I did for The Slender Man Massacre 3.2:

  • He goes back to searching and finds something/keep that nebulous
  • He texts Christy “I think I got something.  Tell you in the morning.  Phone almost dead.
  • Battery icon turns read and phone shuts off.
  • He feels like someone is watching him
  • Looks fast over his shoulder
  • Thinks he sees movement
  • Shakes his head and goes back to reading
  • Feels breath on the back of his neck
  • Pushes chair back and stands and there’s no one there.
  • “that’s it.  I’m outta here.”
  • Shuts down computer.
  • Hears a noise – a book falls.
  • He wants to bolt out the door.
  • Mrs Selig would kill me.

Note that I’m just looking for ideas and fragments, not a formal outline with headings and Roman numerals.  I keep the list below the text I’m writing, and delete the bullet points as I incorporate them into the scene.

Book Outlines:

When I finish the third draft of Power of the Mages, I intend to put the book aside for eight full weeks.  I don’t want to look at it or even think about it.  I don’t plan to give up writing for that time period, however.  In fact, I have ambitious plans – I want to write the complete rough draft of a scifi adventure novel in those eight weeks.  At 8k words/week, that’s 64000 words, a perfect target length for what I have planned. 

The problem is that 8000 words is about 3000 more words than I would typically assign myself as a weekly goal, especially since I’m also going to be writing four chapters of The Slender Man Massacre during the same time period and continuing to blog.  To put it frankly, if I’m going to accomplish my objective, I’m going to have to be efficient; I’m going to have to outline.

What I need to do between now and the end of February is come up with a complete, scene-by-scene outline of the book.

I read a lot of questions that come down to “where do I even begin” when it comes to outlining.  I understand this question.  Contemplating the massive undertaking of planning an entire book can be overwhelming.  The trick, I think, is to break it down into manageable pieces.

I start with the overall concept.  I know who my protagonist is and his Eventual Love Interest (ELI, so I’ll call her Ellie for now).  I know that aliens are going to invade the earth in chapter 1 killing a lot of people, and I know that the protagonist is going to stop the invasion.

In Excel, I put C1.1 – Ellie, a movie star, is on the beach doing a photo shoot.  Alien crafts appear.

Next, I want to cut to my protagonist.  C1.2 – Hero is watching a movie on DVD starring Ellie. 

I know that at some point, Ellie is going to get people to move from the beach to an underground garage.  Hero is going to watch footage of the aliens killing everyone with a death ray.  I don’t know exactly the chapter or scene, so I just type each idea into a cell.  I’ll go back later and fill in the details, just as I’ll go back to each scene to add details to make a full outline.

The point is to keep going and adding details until it is all done.  I don’t concentrate on any one area to its completion unless the inspiration strikes me.  In this way, building the story slowly and naturally, I don’t get overwhelmed by the enormity of the tasks.

I’ll keep you updated as to how it’s going.  Until then, what method do you use?  Any organizational tips for us?

Creating a Novel – Discovery vs Outline Pt 1

I’m a discovery writer.  I start with a character and a situation and write.  Part of the fun is seeing where the road takes me.

For The Slender Man Massacre, the protagonist is based on my niece.  I put her and another character in a dark alley and went from there.  I knew nothing more about the story than that and the fact that the Slender Man is going to be involved.

As Chapter 1 took shape, I began to think about the next one.  Now that I’m almost finished with Chapter 3, I have a solid plan up through the first half of Chapter 5.  That’s where I like to be – thinking about two chapters ahead.

It’s also important, however, to know where the book is going.  My collaborator and I discussed the ending early in the process.  I knew the last line of the novel when I was still less than a thousand words in.

Over the next four thousand words, I put a lot of thought into the story arc.  Since the word “massacre” is used in the title, I figured it would be best if there were, you know, a massacre at some point, so that plot point shaped up pretty easily.  Then I determined how I was going to get from there to the end.  All told, I have a rough idea of the last 7 or 8 chapters.

Now, I just have to figure out what happens for the middle 17 or so.

To me, this method is a natural and easy way to write a novel.  There are, however, distinct disadvantages:

  1. Character and story are “discovered” as part of the process.  It’s often necessary for your first chapters to go through significant rewrites to make things fit.
  2. You have the potential of writing yourself into a corner.  Since nothing is planned, it’s hard to see that blind alley.
  3. You have to go back to the beginning a lot to add set up details for events that happen later.
  4. It can be hard to see plot deficiencies from a big picture perspective.

From a creative perspective, I’m a big believer in, “Do what works best for you.”  On the other hand, part of the learning process is to try new things so you can really learn what does work best.  For this reason and others, I’m going to try outlining for an upcoming project.

Shameless Plug – Tune in tomorrow for a discussion on outlining!

BrianWFoster’s Twelfth Law of Writing

Twelfth Law: Make the Reader Care

Repeat after me, “Readers do not care about events.  They care about characters.”

Get that concept down before moving on.  Reread it.  Reread it again.

To engage the reader, you must make him care.  To make him care, do the following:

  1. Give the reader a relatable character – Introduce the character early with a name.  Give the character faults.  Put thought into why the reader should root for the character and work on establishing those reasons.
  2. Filter events through the character – A death, a battle, or losing a job all have the potential to evoke an emotional reaction in the reader.  On their own, however, they are meaningless.  Go find a history textbook and read the facts of a battle.  Were you moved?  Did you cry at the deaths or relish the success of the victors?  Probably not.  Read about the same battle as told through the eyes of one of the survivors.  You’ll feel what he felt.  Relate to the reader how the POV character feels about the events.

Let’s Talk About Dialogue

A large chunk of any story is going to be characters talking to each other, and it’s something you absolutely have to get right.  Here are my tips for effective dialogue:

  1. Pay attention to all rules of writing except where you need to deviate to demonstrate voice – One of my pet peeves (I have many) is people saying, “It’s dialogue.  Grammar, etc. doesn’t matter.”  I couldn’t disagree more.  If writing, whether poor structure or overuse of words, distracts in the text, it distracts in the dialogue.  The balance comes in trying to create a specific voice for a character.  Sometimes the additional authenticity outweighs the distraction.  You have to make that determination.
  2. You are not trying to capture an actual conversation – Alfred Hitchcock (I think I’m attributing the quote correctly) said, “A story is life with the boring parts removed.  BWFoster78 said, “Dialogue is a conversation with the boring parts removed (I came up with that all by myself.  Clever huh?).”  Never show the exchange of greetings.  Don’t start speeches with “okay” or other throw-away phrases.
  3. Dialogue can be a battle – The best dialogue captures tension.  One person speaks.  The other person doesn’t even necessarily answer anything to do with the first person, instead going on the attack.  A conversation like this can show as much action as a physical fight.
  4. Keep it simple, stupid – Whenever I cringe at a piece of dialogue, it’s usually because the author, though they keep their prose tight, tend to go on and on with the dialogue.  Don’t be redundant.  Cut deep.  The problem with this approach is that it can lead to the speech sounding stilted. 
  5. Make the dialogue personal – Expose the character through the pattern of the dialogue, the word choice, the style, etc.  Include feelings.  This tip tends to be in direct opposition to Tip 4.  Use your judgment to balance the two.
  6. Eliminate speech tags when you can – The only purpose of a speech tag is to identify the person speaking.  If you can do that with an action, all the better.  Note that you have to change paragraphs in this situation when another character acts.  Make sure, however, that the reader always knows who is talking.
  7. Don’t overly use names inside the quotes – You can get by with it occasionally, and, when you do, it adds emotion.  Overuse dulls the impact and distracts.
  8. Keep it snappy – Characters speak in fragments.  They cut each other off.  They use contractions.
  9. Don’t try to insert too much exposition – “As you know, Bob, dialogue needs to move the story along and can be used to impart necessary information to the reader.  Too much exposition, especially poorly done, can be cringe-worthy though.”
  10. Don’t overuse exclamations – It’s fine to use them sometimes!  Just don’t do it all the time!  It gets really annoying!  See what I mean!

Cut it Out!

“Know when to hold ‘em; know when to fold ‘em.”  That’s good advice for poker and good advice for writing.

There’s a simple rule to remember — if it doesn’t advance the plot, get rid of it.

Take the following passage from the rough draft of Chapter 27 of Power of the Mages:

He had a pretty good idea of the direction from his multiple earlier sensings of the power, so he walked in that general direction.  His path took him through the center of the nearly deserted city.  Only a few of the shops were open, and those saw little custom.  Even with the relative coolness of the day, the sun shining on Xan’s head caused the mass of curls atop his head to become a discomfort.

“I hate my hair.  Brant’s and Dylan’s grow down.  Mine grows straight out.” 

He searched the area for an open barber but didn’t find any.  He did, however, spot an open clothing boutique down an alley that sold men’s hats.  Ducking in, he quickly selected a wide brimmed cover that didn’t look too hideous.  The flat black color didn’t stand out, and, aside from a black band, it had no ornamentation. 

As he placed it on his head, the shop’s proprietor approached.  “That looks perfect on you, young sir.  For the low price of one silver, you’ll have the young ladies falling all over you.”

Xan chuckled despite himself.  “I seriously doubt that, and, if it’s more than two coppers, I’ll be putting it back on the rack.”

He didn’t hear the man’s response because he sensed the magic use again.  He pulled five coppers out of his pocket, generously giving one more than what he figured was a fair price, and handed them to the older man.  No complaints followed him out of the shop.

As he rushed down the alley back to a small square with a fountain depicting some form of imagined sea creatures, he saw two men walking away from him.  Something about their walks stood out to him.  He looked at them magically.  Both glowed with power.

When I read back over this to edit it for the 2nd draft, I thought, “This is dreadful.  Why did I even write it?”  It relates nothing about the plot since the hat never comes into play in any meaningful fashion, and there’s no tension.  I finally figured out that the entire passage is there to get Xan out of the way of the two catcher’s men so they don’t see him.  There’s a much easier way to do that.  See the new version:

The winding streets confused him, forcing him to backtrack several times.  As he entered a small square, he sensed magic use again.  Trying to get a better orientation, he rushed down an alley.  When the narrow lane intersected a road, he felt the mage to his right, but movement to his left drew his attention.

Two men walked away from him.  Something about their gaits stood out to him, so he examined them magically.  Both held power.

That’s 220 fewer words to accomplish the same plot goal.

Often, the best way improve your work is by deleting the stuff that doesn’t belong.

Review of The Maze Runner

Sorry for no post yesterday; I was on the road.  I drove up to Oakland to watch the Saints crush the Silver and Black.  Good times. 

Likewise, don’t expect posts Thursday or Friday.  I’ll return to my normal Monday through Friday schedule next week.

Now, on to the Review:

In The Maze Runner, Mr. Dashner tells of a young man, Thomas, who is transported in an elevator to a mysterious place where other teenagers fight against metal monsters to survive.  None of them remember much of their outside lives, and their only mission is to escape.

Why to buy this book: It is competently written and is fast paced.  Action drives the plot to a satisfactory and quick conclusion.

Why not to buy the book: While the writing is competent, it is not spectacular.  There are a few annoyances, like Mr. Dashner’s overuse of semi-colons and transparent attempts to withhold information at the start of the novel.  He would have been much better off simply addressing Thomas’ questions at the start instead of having half a dozen different characters say, “You have to wait until tomorrow to find out what’s going on.”  Really?  The main problem for me, though, was that I didn’t start to care about the POV character until half way through the book.  I think the author should have devoted more time to character development at the start whether than trying to drive the story with hooks.

Bottom Line: The biggest indictment of the book I can give is that I’m not willing to spend money to buy any more of the series.  If I had spare time and someone gave them to me, I’d read them, but I’m not breaking out my credit card for them.  I give it a middle-of-the-road 3 stars.