Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

4 Steps to Writing Organically, Part II – Viewpoints, Mimicry and Imagination

Monday, September 15th, 2014

Lonely road

“[Creativity is] like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
~E.L. Doctorow

Think of writing like sailing a massive ship. There are an enormous number of mechanical actions that synergistically combine to keep the ship plowing forward through the waves. It behooves you, as the captain of the vessel, to have an understanding of all of those mechanical workings. Yet if a ship’s captain spent all of his time below decks listening to the engine turbines for knocks, or examining the bilge pumps, or adjusting the steam gauges, he wouldn’t be where he is most needed—on the bridge, guiding the ship.

You need to be on the bridge of your story, standing at its helm, charting its course, guiding its objective, and keeping the story plowing forward. When you leave the bridge to spend your time developing characters that may or may not need to exist, or trying to chart the story’s course far in advance of your current position—without any reference points or knowledge of weather and currents—you’re no longer manning the helm of your story. You’re down below buried among the mechanical operations of the boat, and you have no real view towards your objective.

Organic writing produces storylines and characters that feel alive and real. Mechanical writing can feel formulaic, and characters created through formulas often feel like cardboard cutouts, stiff and unrealistic.

Last week I talked about two ways to help you write organically. Point #1 covered using milestones. Point #2 talked about the importance of capturing scenes as you think of them, but not writing the scene until you’ve reached its place in the story.

This week I’m covering the last two of the four ideas to help you write organically (plus a bonus idea):

3. Assume viewpoints.

Some writers struggle to invent characters who feel vibrant and unique. They turn to lists of traits and descriptions to help them fill in those character details. This is like the captain leaving the helm of the ship to fiddle with the engine’s mechanics.

Character creation is easy or difficult in direction relation to how well you are able to assume a viewpoint.

Assuming a viewpoint isn’t the same thing as seeing someone else’s point of view. Doubtless you’ve been in a discussion with someone where you were able to “see their viewpoint,” but in such instances, we’re still sitting in our own shoes, behind the window of our own view, looking across the road and through the other’s window from the outside in.

Assuming a viewpoint means being that person or character. Actors do this all the time. The really talented actors seem to become their character; you can’t see where the character ends and the actor begins. It’s a seamless transition.

Like anything else, truly assuming a viewpoint takes practice. It means standing in that person’s (or character’s) shoes and taking a good look around at how the world looks from their perspective—based on their education, their experience, their upbringing. If you don’t know these things for a character when you step into their shoes, you invent them then and there in order to frame their perspective. Assuming a viewpoint means imagining what the character would be feeling in each moment, and speaking and acting from those feelings. You have to understand why characters think the way they do in order to express their feelings realistically to the reader.

Until you put a character in a situation where they have to react and respond, you really can’t know much about them—no more than you know about the guy standing in line next to you waiting for his coffee. Even when you invent a character to fill a need (such as the pirate in my first week’s post on avoiding clichés and writing organically) you still can’t know much about him until you start thinking and acting from his point of view.

I’ve found that the characters I end up keeping the most notes on (in relation to their motivations or plans) are the ones I’ve spent the least time with as viewpoint characters. It’s rare that I need to record the motivations of my main characters. I know them too well; I understand them completely. I trust that when I’m writing in their viewpoint, I’ll decide in that moment what to do—and I’ll be capable of being true to their views.

If you invent and write your characters as the story calls for them, and if you let their personalities develop as the story develops, the characters will not only feel alive to the reader, they’ll also feel alive to you. They’ll take on their own personalities, and oftentimes they’ll surprise you with the choices they make and the things they say and do.

There is a great and wondrous magic that is created in this organic process. Don’t miss your chance to experience it by staying below decks messing with the mechanics.

4. Observe and mimic.

To become a good writer, it’s necessary to be a keen observer—not merely of the environment but also of the interrelationships of human beings.

Part of gaining success in conveying a character’s viewpoint is an understanding of human nature. The better you understand your character’s motivations and how his experience influences his ideas, the better you can show his rationale to the reader.

We gain an understanding of human nature through reading great works of fiction (both old and new), through a study of history and the humanities, and through our own experience and observation.

We can learn much from history, but there is no substitute for going out into the world and seeing what you see. Susha Guppy said, “It is very important not to become hard. The artist must always have one skin too few in comparison with other people, so you feel the slightest wind.”

Let life inspire you. The more you open your eyes and observe the world, the more inspiration you’ll find in it.

As part of mindfully observing life, make a practice of looking at both sides of an argument and really trying—not to “see” another’s point of view, but to truly assume their point of view. You’ll find over time that there is quite a difference in these two perspectives. Then take your observations and apply them to your characters and story.

Life mimics art, but art well done mimics life.

5. Cultivate your imagination.

“Great imaginations are apt to work from hints and suggestions, and a single moment of emotion is sometimes sufficient to create a masterpiece.” ~Margaret Sackville

Imagination is what connects us to divinity. It’s the thread linking creativity and the muse, the true source of inspiration.

If you’re one of the ones who struggles to imagine new things, cultivate this skill. Turn every cloud into an animal. Think of ways that what is, isn’t. Practice thinking up stories based on vignettes of observation. Let a sound or a brief comment spur a story idea. Watch the world and think of ways to describe it to others. Find whimsy in the mundane.

Some of us leave childhood with our imaginations unfettered. Others find that we’ve left imagination somewhere far behind us like a treasured toy, once loved and then abandoned. We may feel a deep desire to create, yet for all of this desire, we cannot seem to find that creative spark.

Imagination can become buried beneath layers of loss and experience, criticism, or too many “it’s time to get serious about your life” lessons–especially from those who’ve closed a door on their own spirit of play. Unburden yourself of the “now we must do’s” and “work is hard” attitudes, and you’ll find the buds of imagination making their way back to the surface.

When a man loses his imagination, when he loses the ability to wave a magic wand and make his world beautiful, he’s lost everything that’s truly important in this life.

Unburden your imagination, and the rest will follow.

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Did you find any of these ideas helpful or similar to your own creative style? Do you have a completely different way of writing? Share your thoughts below.

Pantser or Plotter: 4 Steps to Writing Organically (and the Science Behind Why You Should) – Part 1

Monday, September 8th, 2014

Pencil tree writing organically

After my last blog post on the four things you must know before starting a novel, in which I suggested not inventing a character, kingdom or creature until the story calls for it, a number of readers wrote in to ask, should nothing be planned?

My answer is absolutely plan the four points on the list I gave you last week. But my list didn’t include how to write when you’ve got so little planned out beforehand. How do you just wander off into the great unknown without any sort of map? I’ll answer that here, as well as why you should.

There’s a fundamental reason why a story written organically feels less formulaic than its counterpart (and not for the obvious reason that it is less formulaic). The answer actually lies in fundamentals observed in quantum physics.

Life imposes consciousness (decision, thought, will) upon the physical universe and shapes energy and matter. A quick look around proves this truth. Though it cannot be measured or touched as its own unit (i.e. separate from the thing it animates), Life is proven to exist on a higher plane that monitors (monitor: to oversee, supervise or regulate) the physical universe.

Life is the senior creative impulse, and below this creative plane of existence lie all other observable physical phenomena.

So how in the world does this relate to writing?

Simply: when you operate primarily in the mechanics of a subject, you’re operating below the level of prime cause. Creation is prime cause. Mechanics are the observable effects of prime cause codified into physical laws. They fall below prime cause on the scale of causation.

Still wondering how this applies to writing? Simply, when you’re writing (and especially when writing fiction), you need to be thinking, imagining, devising and designing from that higher creative plane, not slugging through ground-level mechanics. Imagine if an airline pilot was charging through the bowels of the airplane moving levers and opening and closing electrical circuits and doing all of the mechanical things that actually keep the aircraft aloft? Who would be flying it?

Prime cause is where the magic happens. Prime cause is the pinnacle of creativity. Prime cause is where the god of inspiration dwells.

When I say to stay out of the mechanics, I’m not talking about grammar or true basics of craft such as “show don’t tell.” The rules of grammar and style are like musical scales; you practice each one until you know them all instinctively.

What mechanics of writing am I talking about then? Drawing up comprehensive lists of character descriptions or detailed charts illustrating the rise and fall of your plot; spending hours determining what kind of character arc fits your protagonist, or classifying characters into primary, secondary, tertiary… (Don’t ask me what you’re supposed to do with them once they’ve been properly sorted.)

You know the irony in all of these “writing rules?” Few of them entail actually writing.

Now, assuming any of this makes sense to you, how to do you apply this practically? Here are some ideas to help you (this week I’m covering the first two ideas. I’ll cover two more next week):

1. Use milestones.

A milestone is a scene you’ve envisioned. It can be as little as a piece of dialogue between characters or even just a snippet of story that happens in some future chapter. But you know it’s a milestone for your journey because it has importance to the overall story or is essential in a character’s development. Milestones are scenes to be inserted into the story at some future point. You write towards them. They act as landmarks that guide you through the great story unknown.

Your conflict could itself be a milestone. My conflict spans five novels, and while I know what will happen in the final resolution (the world will be saved), I have no idea how that resolution will ultimately come about. (How can I predict so far ahead, when my characters are still growing, learning and changing?)

I write from milestone to milestone. Once I finish one scene, I focus on the next milestone along that character’s path. Sometimes it is still many chapters distant, but it orients my thought process, as I know I’ve got to get a certain character to the point where that milestone scene can occur. Because I write from multiple viewpoint characters, I have multiple milestones moments plotted along each character’s path.

2. Capture scenes for any point in the story, but write them in linear sequence.

Scenes are the building blocks of your story. Some become milestones, others flesh out the path between each point. I can’t count how many times I’ve had to jump out of the shower to record some complicated bit of dialogue I’ve just come up with on my phone, and I’m constantly devising scenes and conversations while driving—it’s my most productive plotting time.

Often a scene will be so vivid in your head, you’ll want to write it then and there. But here’s the caveat when writing organically: you can’t write the scene until you reach its place in the story.

There’s an old law about storytelling: you always tell it best the first time, so you never talk about any parts of your story that you haven’t yet written. Not writing the scene until you reach it in the story is a similar law.

There’s a sort of creative spark captured in each imagined scene. Talking about it before you’ve written it drains that magic from the moment. It’s a similar thing with writing a scene before its time. Not only can the story change dramatically by the time you actually reach the scene (making it obsolete), but also the synergy that’s created through writing each scene in sequence—a sort of building, budding energy and momentum—is often lost. There is true magic found when writing at the level of prime cause (and not referring to exhaustive lists or charts to tell you what your character needs to do next.) Pure creation is glorious and unanticipated and an adventure every time.

So make notes of those imagined scenes; keep all of what you’ve envisioned, the dialogue, the description—whatever it is that has come to you—but don’t write the scene until its time has come.

An added benefit to this linear approach is that these captured scenes become the fuel you use to keep writing—because you just can’t wait to write that scene! I still recall the moment I finally wrote a milestone scene in the second book in my series three years after I first envisioned it. It felt sublime.

Are you an organic writer? I’m interested in your thoughts and experiences. Or if you have questions, share them below. Next week I’ll cover a few more ideas, including assuming viewpoints and observation and mimicry.

How to Avoid Cliches (or The 4 Things You MUST Know Before Starting A Novel)

Monday, September 1st, 2014

Writing circle of woe

A reader recently wrote to me and asked, how do you write a novel when every time you start (oh, so many times!) you get a few chapters in and suddenly become deluged with doubts? And how, when you’re so well-read in the genre that you’ve read it all and seen it all a hundred times…how can you possibly devise a story that’s not cliché?

Though asked of me in regards the writing of fantasy, these questions are ones every writer struggles with—because every writer is possessed of the same demons. These parasites of our insecurities don’t all whisper the same demoralizing words, but they all originate in the same hateful level of hell. Their entire purpose is to keep writers (and all artists) from creating, and it’s frightening how good they are at this task.

But here’s a truth those whispers obscure: Nothing can occur if you don’t start writing.

There are two mantras that have always guided me:  1) A writer writes.  2) You have to waste a lot of creation on the way to achieving a great story.

The more you write, the better you hone your craft. If you let your insecurities stop you from writing, you’ll never get far enough into anything to be able to do something about those things you consider so cliché. As to that point about wasting creation…

On the road to finishing an award-winning first novel, I wrote eleven versions of the same book. I would write 500+ pages, then read something else published in the genre and say, “this has to be better” and scrap it and start over again with some new idea. I’m not saying everyone should spend that much time on one novel (it’s not very efficient) but I learned a lot about my craft. More to the point, I was writing the whole time.

To all aspiring authors, I plea: Let writing a novel be a learning experience. Let it be an adventure. Don’t think you have to land on THE IDEA from the first moment you start out—especially if you think you can’t even start writing unless you’ve achieved THE IDEA. There’s nothing like the thrill of watching a story assume its own momentum and pull out of your control; or of seeing characters appear out of nowhere and capture your heart. Don’t deny yourself these joys because you’re listening to the demons that say your story is cliché, or it has to be better. Make it better. Eliminate the clichés, but do it while you’re writing.

Keep in mind that every writer struggles with the tropes of their genre. You can’t avoid everything that’s cliché; some of the clichés are likely essential to making the genre what it is. Even so, sometimes it feels like pulling teeth trying to come up with things that are different and new. Other times inspiration strikes and the pages just flow out in a warm, delightful rush. But here’s the point: inspiration strikes far more often when you’re actively involved in creation.

Fledgling writers—especially fantasy writers—spend a lot of time sitting at their kitchen tables trying to come up with characters and kingdoms and languages ad nauseam. Listen, please don’t do this. Don’t spend all of your writing time planning and plotting, devising character descriptions or trying to piece together kingdoms, races and magical creatures (or romantic love triangles, or every type of fae in your series, or all the people your protagonist could possibly meet…).

Instead, start writing. Invent it when you need it.  

Whaaaat? you say. No world map? No complicated plot chart? No characters beyond the main one or two I’ve been writing five clichéd chapters with over and over again? Whaaaaaat?

Here’s the thing: trying to think up creatures and characters and kingdoms ahead of the story is what is getting you into trouble, because you have no basis on which to ground your inventions. The characters, kingdoms and creatures are not organic to any world you’ve created, because you haven’t truly created the world yet, because you’re not even writing the story! So all you can do at that early stage is borrow ideas from someone else. Is it any wonder that you get five chapters in and think, “this is so cliché!”

Inspiration comes as you’re writing. It’s the payment the muse demands: that we first make an effort upon the sacred act of creation.

So start writing, and invent it when you need it.

How do you do this? Here’s an example: Your character is going into an inn and you ask yourself, who does he meet? What does he do there? Your next question has to be, what would be interesting? What would be entertaining? What would reveal more of my protagonist’s character and/or drive the plot forward? Let’s see…let’s have him meet a pirate (because who doesn’t love pirates, even if they’re cliché?). Now, where is the pirate from? Let’s make up an island. Okay, what shores does he pirate? Who are his enemies? Who does he trade with?

You make it all up right there. Now you’ve got all of that invented (just enough to finish the scene) and a whole new part of your world has come into focus organically. The best part is, it feels organic. It works, because that’s how real life works. You don’t go into a tavern knowing everything there is to know about the people in it. You don’t go through life that way. And neither should your characters—because when you’re writing with everything figured out to the nth power ahead of time, it often feels contrived, because it is.

So what do you need to know before you begin your novel? Just four things:

1) You need to establish your essential conflict. You need to know who your bad guys are, why they’re bad, what’s behind their motivations (at least in part), what they can do (what makes them powerful, scary or problematic) and why they’re in conflict with your protagonist(s). If you’re thinking you might write a series (kind of a must if you’re a fantasy writer) then you have to make sure your conflict is sufficiently encompassing so as to require three (or more) books to resolve.

2) You need to have a clear enough concept about who your protagonist is to make him/her interesting to you. Don’t think about whether they’ll be interesting to others. Writing to appease the potential opinions of others never works. Make your protagonist interesting and entertaining to you. If you’re honestly interested in them, it’s more likely that others will be interested also.

3) [For genre writers] You need a clear concept of the essential elements as it applies to your genre. For fantasy, this is a solidly devised magic system. For SF, it’s the science to support your story. For mystery, it could be the pivotal points your protagonist follows in solving the case. For romance, it’s your love triangle or the person/thing keeping your lovers apart. For any of these, all you need to start with is a good premise. You’ll come to understand the magic or the science or the complexities of your mystery as your characters advance through the tale. So long as you have a sound premise, the rest will follow. And if it doesn’t? Well, you can go back and change the premise to fit what the story or world has developed into. You’re the god of your novel, after all.

4) You need a clear concept of the overarching purpose or theme which grounds the story and drives your passion to write it.

For example, in my fantasy novels, I wanted to explore a different kind of evil—the kind that is really only “evil” from a certain point of view. I wanted to show people that you can’t always pick one side and say “we’re right and you’re wrong.” So many conflicts in our world are conflicts of viewpoints (religions, doctrines, political outlooks). Right and wrong aren’t absolutes. They are assessments based on a gradient scale of survival, and what is survival for one group may not be survival for another.

This premise is where my dominating interest lies, and it’s something I’m very interested in, something I’m passionate about. That passion to explore philosophical ideals drives my work. I do it through fantasy because I love magic and sword fighting and castles and princes, and I love the freedom to invent anything I want, in any way I want it.

So to summarize all of this in three words: just start writing.

* * *

Have I missed any important points from your own experience? Do you think these points will be helpful in your writing? Share any comments with me below.

4 Steps to the Ultimate Compelling Villain

Monday, August 18th, 2014

good versus evil sea

I want to talk about villains. Not the blackened-to-the-core, maniacally twisted kind or the ultimate evil, soul-devouring kind—I’d say genre fiction is all too familiar with stereotypical antagonists of this ilk. No, I want to talk about the villains you love to hate.

Once upon a time in fiction (say, twenty years ago), good and evil were starkly portrayed in black and white. The villains were all soulless monsters, blackguards or psychopaths (or the ultimate evil overlord), and the only thing readers really cared about was seeing the hero incinerate them.

Flash-forward to 2014 to a growing trend in grey or “grimdark” fantasy, which has antiheroes adorning book covers and entire series solely exploring the murky shades of amoral grey. In the YA market, we see a plethora of books featuring fallen angels, werewolves and sparkly vampires all just trying to be understood. Genres beyond fantasy are seeing a similar turn: suddenly we’re looking through a serial killer’s dark glasses, interpreting the world via the twisted logic of a corrupted mind.

The blogosphere is alive with articles questioning the advisability of writing from the viewpoint of morally muddled heroes (or psychopaths and criminals). Does helping the reader identify with a villain’s rationale de-emphasize the victims’ plight? And with so many anti-heroes stomping their devil-may-care way through genre fiction, is the perceived line between good and evil in real life becoming blurred? There are a host of rationales trying to explain this shift of focus. It may be a complex reflection on the state of Man, or it might be simply that after decades of reading the same formulaic stories, genre readers are getting bored with biblical extremes.

For decades, fantasy followed the Tolkienian model of absolutes—ultimate evil versus ultimate good, and the only side foray was into the cravenness of man. There are plenty of great fantasy books that still follow this model, and more hitting the shelves every day. But while I’ve rarely ventured into the twilight of grimdark fantasy, I admit to needing more from my villains now than a maniacal outlook or soul-crushing magic.

In my ideal story, the villains are as frightening as they are intelligent, both compelling and repellant. I want to be inexorably drawn to them and hate myself for it. Because my own epic fantasy series is equal parts philosophical exploration and entertainment, I need my villains to be intriguing, and I need the reader to understand their motivations. There’s value in exploring the grey shadows of moral ambiguity if the journey enlightens us to the real truths of this world.

For those writers interested in creating compelling villains, here are four things to keep in mind:

1. Villains should have a goal that is entirely justifiable from their point of view.

In real life, no one sets out to become the villain. The criminal takes his first steps towards iniquity as a result of some event (or sequence of events) that crushed his self-respect. The greatest conflicts that trouble governments today come not from a diabolical outlook but from the view of a righteous cause. That this cause seems diabolical to those on the receiving end of its hatred is entirely the point—there are at least two sides to every quarrel. Present each viewpoint equally and compellingly, and the reader will become as conflicted as your characters.

2. Villains should have skills, abilities or knowledge that remains unexplained.

While their aims and the motivations beneath them should be explored, the reader shouldn’t understand everything about your villain. That sense of mystery is what glues the reader to the character.

3. Let the reader spend time with them in small doses.

Here again, mystery, mystery, mystery—this is the mantra. Give the reader glimpses. Make them want more time with the character. No matter how terrible his actions are, the reader can usually accept them if given in morsels. Tantalize, don’t gluttonize. The less is more approach works best.

4. Give the reader hope of reform.

Nothing captures the heart of the reader more than the possibility of reform—especially if the reader truly fears the villain as much as they’re drawn to him or her.  There’s nothing quite so effective as hope of reform to endear a reader to a villain. You can drag the reader through enormous turmoil and treachery so long as you maintain that hope of redemption in the end.

What qualities do you desire in your villains? Do you have other approaches that work for you? Let me know in the comments below.

P.S. ~ For the many of you who’ve been asking, you’ll get to know A Pattern of Shadow & Light’s own villains in altogether new and uncomfortable ways in Paths of Alir, A Pattern of Shadow & Light Book 3, which is now available for pre-order on Amazon and coming soon to B&N, Kobo, iBooks etc.

How Not to Write Yourself into a Corner (in Your Novel and in Life)

Monday, July 28th, 2014

man-in-maze
There’s something known as writing yourself into a corner. This phrase might be used to describe any number of authorial ailments, from the scene that mystifyingly “doesn’t work,” to the sinking realization—many chapters in—that your entire plot resolution hinges on something your protagonist can’t possibly know about. While trying to finish my third novel, Paths of Alir, I became mired in one of these situations. It felt like there was no way out and no way through.

The more I thought on the matter, however, the more clearly I began to see the real issue emerging. My problem wasn’t the plot, or the characters, or some other tangle. My problem was that I’d forgotten who was creating the story.

As writers, we make the rules. We decide what will and won’t be in our stories. For genre writers, this encompasses everything from new physical universe laws to the types and names of trees, but the concept applies for other fiction writers equally.

In those moments of prime decision, you the author are the omnipotent god of the universe of your novel. You’re the pinnacle of causation. You make decision after decision about how the world of your novel will function and where its story is destined to go. Maybe you have it outlined, or perhaps you have only a vague idea of its path. But you make decisions that lay the story foundations, and thereafter, you channel your characters through topography formed by these decisions.

In those early moment of creation, you are prime cause, but in the next moment, you go forward into writing the story and become the characters. The instant this happens, you necessarily become the effect of the rules (decisions) you established only moments ago as the omnipotent god. Creative writing really has to work this way. You must assume the characters’ viewpoints in order to tell their story, so you have to take that walk into terra incognita and forget you made the rules.

It’s inherent in that surrender, though, that when you become lost in the tangled threads of story, you forget how you got there. You forget that you’re the one who designed that maze of plot paths. You forget that you can change the maze into new shapes—or eliminate it completely. In fact, you can just make those topographic foundations disappear in the blink of an eye (and the pressing of a delete key). There’s nothing you can’t do in your story world.

Except, apparently, remember in the most important moments that there’s nothing you can’t do.

A writer is limited by what he can envision. Or as you’ll see it written in my series, the phrase is, “a wielder [one who works magic] is limited by what he can envision.” But it works out to the same meaning. We make decisions, and then we limit ourselves by them—most often by forgetting we made them.

This truth is readily apparent in the microcosm of novel writing, but if we take a deeper look, we’ll find decisions we’ve made about ourselves, our goals, our lives—decisions that limit our ability to reach farther and live life larger. Decisions that invalidate our potential and ultimately send us—just like those decisions framing our story—into a corner in our own lives.

So here’s the conclusion I reached after this inspection: we can’t avoid making decisions, but we can get better at remembering we’ve made them. And we can certainly keep a weather eye towards those decisions or self-invalidating statements that limit our potential, our goals, or our reach towards a bigger and brighter future.

We can be the gods of our own universes. We just have to remember, in those dark and cornered moments, who is actually writing the story of our lives.

Have you experienced this phenomenon? I would love to hear how you found your way out of your proverbial corners.

Breaking Up With Your Novel

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

breaking up with your novel

Last week I finished penning the third book in my epic fantasy series and sent it off to beta readers. Paths of Alir was two years in the planning/writing, and the final clocked in around 300,000 words. (It is an epic fantasy. Providing a series is well-crafted, anything short of 250k and epic fantasy fans somewhat turn up their noses). A well-written novel of any genre and length will present characters the reader can identify with, but let me tell you, by the time you’re three books into a series of this depth, you and your readers are deeply invested.

Investment is exactly the point—and the problem. I sent off the manuscript last week expecting to feel that remembered sense of accomplishment, and…

Nope. Nothing like it. Instead of a warm glow, I experienced only a haunting sense of loss.

I don’t know if every writer encounters this agonizing moment upon departing the world of their novel. Perhaps it’s worse when you’re square in the middle of a five-book epic fantasy that’s already pulled nearly a million words out of you. Or perhaps it’s no different from finishing one novel that you poured your heart into for two years, or ten.

Writers often equate their passion for the craft with obsession, even at times addiction. I’ve heard writing a novel analogized as a mistress who jealously demands your creative attention. These are justifiable parallels. As the author, you become truly intimate with your characters. You spend all of your free time with them and (to be honest) quite a lot of time that wasn’t yours to devote (i.e. when you should’ve been focusing on some other task). I regularly warned people in my “real” life that I was only about 60% there. It was a generous estimate—40% was often more true.

In looking at the nature of this author-novel relationship, certain things should’ve been quite obvious to me, yet it never occurred to me until I closed the door on my world how deeply I was in love with it. So much so that pulling mentally out of the world (even knowing it necessary to gain perspective) felt agonizing. I felt like I’d broken up with my novel.

Suddenly I stood in that moment we’ve all experienced: you’ve just shut the door behind a departing lover…perhaps experiencing that duality of conscience in which you start second-guessing your decision to eject this person from your life…realizing with a visceral and all-encompassing regret how much the other person meant to you… I had closed the door on my novel and stood leaning my forehead against that door feeling all of these same emotions.

It should’ve occurred to me sooner that my novel (or in my case, my entire series) and I had been having an intimate relationship. Mayhap I’m the last author on earth to figure this out. In any case, it got me to thinking about the parallels between our novels and our loves. Here are five ways finishing your novel is like breaking up with your significant other:

1. When you’re in a passionate relationship, it’s all you want to talk about. Likewise while you’re passionately engaged in writing your novel. You’ll inundate your friends with unsolicited gushings that sometimes push them to the fine edge of patience. You live and work and eat and breathe with these characters in your head twenty-four/seven. It only follows that they’re the first thing on your mind when it comes time to reluctantly pull out of the world and engage with people who actually breathe oxygen.  

Of course, now that you’ve finished writing the novel, here comes that enforced separation. You and your significant other have decided you both need a little space, time to reflect, time to work on yourselves, perhaps. You seek comfort in friends, ex-lovers…new lovers (relationship rebound)—new books, new manuscripts, but none of them hold the same luster as the novel you just completed. And no matter who you’re with, now that you’re no longer together with your novel, all you can talk about is how you’re not together anymore.

2. Intent on staying out of the novel’s world for a while, you find yourself going to all the places you used to go together, only now you’re going there alone. Your morning tea or coffee…your stop by the bakery…your shower, your morning run or drive to work… Always before, you and your novel shared an intimacy in each mundane moment. Now you feel the novel’s absence in everything you do, and the world has lost some of its magic.

3. Suddenly you can’t listen anymore to the soundtrack you’ve been glued to for the last three months—or any song that reminds you of your novel, your characters or the world. Instead, you find yourself returning to those old breakup favorites, mulling over the pervasive feeling of loss that is gripping you, wishing your beta readers could read faster so you could at least talk with them about your novel love.

4. While you’re waiting for your beta readers, maybe you’ll return to an earlier manuscript or a short story with the same characters and linger there like a voyeur, observing the characters from afar like you’d watch your ex at a restaurant or a bar with friends, not daring to intrude or interact. They were your friends, too, but now you feel estranged from them. 

5. Lastly—almost worst of all—you’re beset by the nagging, ruthless worry of whether or not there’s another novel out there for you. Will you ever be able to find the same magic in the next book that you found in the one you just finished writing? Can your next book ever be as well-crafted, as wondrously inspired? Will you ever find another novel idea that feels as true, or that touches you as deeply?

How can a conglomerate of symbols representing thought take on such life and feel so real as to engender such an emotional upheaval at its end?

And how often we writers equate our novels with lovers or children or the labor of birth, implying an explanation-defying yet truly intimate connection with a work that has no substance, no mass save printed ink on paper, and no recognition of us—its author—whatsoever, and yet is unequivocally an entity with which we’ve interacted, reasoned, worried, slaved over and—ultimately—fallen in love with.

Have you had a similar experience finishing a creative work? What parallels have I missed? Please share your thoughts. Misery loves company. ;)

The Use of Emotion in Storytelling

Monday, July 22nd, 2013

 

I was recently in dialogue with a reader about the use of homoeroticism in my novels. She asked if I had intentionally created a correlation between two homosexual characters (Sandrine du Préc in Cephrael’s Hand and the Prophet Bethamin in Dagger of Adendigaeth) and unethical conduct.

In short, I had not. However, I found the question intriguing. I loved it, actually, because no one had ever asked me this. Nor had I ever looked at these characters from any other point of view—to me, their sexual attractions were just part of their nature, part of who they were, and I had no hidden agenda or statements to make about those choices. Yet, I could see how, by having the only two homosexual characters in the series thus far both be morally corrupt, this might imply some personal viewpoint on the topic.

(In point of fact, they’re both bisexual, but it doesn’t matter for purposes here. Also, while Sandrine certainly has questionable moral standards and could readily be labeled immoral, the Prophet is merely amoral. The difference I see between the two could fill many more pages.)

Nonetheless, I looked deeply at this after my reader’s question. Why had I shown these two characters as homosexual?

My immediate answer: to create an emotional response.

In our society, it’s readily apparent that most people respond to homosexuality on a visceral level. Either they find it secretly erotic or unreasoningly repulsive or some point just shy of one of these extremes. Even those with relatively impassive views on the topic might undergo an involuntary response when experiencing the moment through a viewpoint character’s eyes.

So yes, I consciously determined that Sandrine and the Prophet would have these urges in order to elicit that sense of homoeroticism, or that repulsion against it, in my readers’ experience.

I had to ask myself then: is it fair that I used homoeroticism to engender an emotional response?

Whereupon I thought, this is what writers do.  We tap into the fears, the hopes, and the mutual joys and desolations of life and imbue our characters with these same tribulations in order to produce that harmonic resonance out of the reader’s own experience. How well we do this determines how much our characters are loved or hated. A story that elicits no emotional response is hardly interesting, is it?

Everything we’re trying to do as writers—and what indeed separates a great story from a mundane one—is that emotional impact. Writers will use whatever methods are available to them to do this, and the gamut of choices is wide. The basics of technique certainly play into it—you’ve got to know passive from active voice and how to arrange a coherent sentence/paragraph/story—but the quality of technique elevates from grammar into craft when you begin looking at the ways a writer elicits an emotional response. Some writers might even be considered unscrupulous in their expert manipulations of our heartstrings, but in the end, if they’ve drawn out our emotions, they’re lauded.

This reminded me of an essay on art that I once read. The author asked, how good does a work of art have to be to be considered art? His answer: technical expertise adequate to produce an emotional impact.

Ultimately this is what I’m trying to do: to introduce you to characters who you can relate to—characters who find purchase in your heart—and to use whatever artistic craft is available to me to make you so invested in these characters’ welfare that you cannot stop reading until you know they’re safe. And of course, they’re rarely so.

In the end, I forgave myself for any unintended aspersions to sexual choice (sorry about that!) and decided that at the very least, I was accomplishing my purpose as a writer in having produced that emotional response one way or another.

I’m open to any thoughts you have on this topic. Share them below! 

An Amuse-bouche for Fans of A Pattern of Shadow and Light

Sunday, June 23rd, 2013

As some of you may know, I’ve been traveling in Europe this month gathering a plethora of research for book three. Much of the third installment of A Pattern of Shadow & Light is set in the Empire of Agasan – specifically in the Sacred City of Faroqhar – which in turn is based on Italy. So my time abroad has been well spent, even if it hasn’t seen new words written to move the story along.

I’ve been getting a lot of mail recently from fans wanting to know when book three will be ready—and rightly so. I want you all clamoring for more. However, since I am ultimately benevolent towards my readers, and since book three is still a ways from hitting the shelves (even the cyber ones), I thought I would give you some fodder for thought on where the story is heading. A few little nuggets to chew on to satisfy your craving, even if it only just takes the edge off your hunger.

[SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t read Book 2, The Dagger of Adendigaeth, stop here and go immediately to download it. I don’t want you left behind.]

[SECOND ALERT: What I say now, below, could still change. I think it’s fairly set or I wouldn’t be sharing it with you, but I reserve the right to reshape the story.]

Okay, now that that’s all covered, let’s look at a few threads we’ll pick up early in book three:

Tanis and Phaedor – when we left these intrepid explorers at the end of Dagger, they were gazing out over a lush valley and a sliver of ocean beyond, a place the zanthyr had just named home.

In book three, Tanis will head into that valley with Phaedor, where he’ll learn more about his mother and father, more about his own unique nature, and ultimately head to the Sacred City of Faroqhar as he continues on his path. He will also face another Malorin’athgul (cue scary music riff).

Franco and Carian – we last saw these Nodefinders in T’khendar. Franco has been training under Dagmar, and Carian was making new friends with the Sundragons as he learned T’khendar’s secrets.

In book three, these two will team up at Björn’s behest to stand against Niko van Amstel as he seeks the Vestal appointment and ousts Dagmar as the realm’s Second Vestal. Niko has plans that will rattle the firmament of the second strand. Unless Franco and Carian can find a way to stop him, he could further push the realm out of Balance to disastrous consequence.

But more troubling to Björn than Niko’s plans alone are the faceless men who stand behind him. Björn needs Franco and Carian to unmask the masterminds using Niko as their pawn, and our two favorite Nodefinders will be wading through a morass of unscrupulous characters in this search (and cursing the entire way).

What about Gwynnleth, you may ask? Currently she’s staying in T’khendar, and I’ll have to keep the why of that a secret for now.

Queen Errodan – When we left the Queen of Dannym at the end of Cephrael’s Hand, she stood upon the quay watching King Gydryn’s ship vanishing into the dawn.

Ean’s queen mother has already shown herself strong-willed and steadfast – she stood apart from her king for five years to protect Ean, never mind the strain it placed upon her heart. With the king and his generals now gone from Calgaryn, Errodan stands alone to meet the Duke of Morwyk as he makes his play for the Eagle Throne.

She’s a powerful woman in her own right, but in Lord Stefan val Tryst, Errodan will face unimaginable trials to both her integrity and her honor.

We’ll also meet some new characters in book three: the Empress of Agasan and her Consort, the High Lord Marius di L’Arlesé, as well as their daughter the Empress’s heir.

We’ll spend some time in the head of the young Agasi Nodefinder Felix di Sarcova as he maneuvers the halls (and forbidden nodes) of the Sormitáge seeking answers to the mystery of his best friend Malin’s disappearance.

And we’ll pick up a new viewpoint character in an old friend whose thoughts have, until this point, been a mystery to us.

I hope these threads (which are all in progress) reassure you that in fact I am working on book three and not just resting on my laurels basking in your adoration. Although that would be nice, too.

And if, dear readers, you raise a loud enough clamor, I’ll even consider posting the first chapter of book three on this blog.

It picks up with Tanis, by the way. 

Overcoming Writer’s Block – 5 Unconventional Ideas

Monday, April 29th, 2013

As writers, we innately tend to know when our story is working and when it isn’t. I like to describe this awareness as a sort of resonance, but it could just as easily be compared to an engine with all pistons firing. A skilled mechanic can tell just by listening when an engine isn’t purring along. Likewise the practiced writer. 

Sometimes the words just pour out. The pages flow one to the next, your dialog perfectly captures the emotion of the scene, the story conflict builds or resolves into the next arc without interruption or even much thought… In those moments, the creation appearing on the page before you seems to flow from a divine source. 

And then there are the times when you can’t seem to make a chapter work to save your life. The island paradise may be your final destination, but the sea between you and this goal is either a storm of occlusion that has you struggling to stay the course or a dead calm without a breath of inspiration to cast you forward. On those days you simply cling to whatever you can, aimlessly adrift, praying for a spark of lucidity in which it all suddenly begins to untangle and the wind picks up. A moment that brings your island into view. 

I’ve been working through my own difficult seas recently. During this time, I tried some of the popular methods for overcoming writer’s block (of which there are as many suggestions as there are writers) but ultimately I returned to my own rather unconventional means of navigation.

Here are five of my successful ways of calling the wind in a dead calm:

1. Go back to where you were last doing well.

You’re sailing along and suddenly slam into a bog. The waters turn muddy, the way forward becomes unclear, and nothing you write thereafter seems to work.

If you can look back and see a time in the story when everything was going well (even if that point was a chapter or more ago) returning to the point where you were last doing well and then continuing forward again in a new direction can often prevent running into the bog again.

How do you chart a different course? Change your dialogue, alter your character interaction, throw in a new plot twist or peril, or even send your character(s) somewhere else entirely. The point is to cast your new heading directly from the point where you were last doing well, even if it means tossing all of the pages written since. 

2. Look to see if you’ve compromised your character’s integrity in some way.

I’ve many times found that the story will bog if I’ve somehow compromised my character’s integrity. For example, at the beginning of Dagger, my truthreader Tanis faces off against an overwhelming enemy named Pelas. My first attempt through the scene saw Tanis with spunk and fire, talking back to Pelas with brave defiance. It was interesting to see a new side of Tanis—and it didn’t work at all.

The problem lay in the fact that my young Tanis isn’t defiant. The way I was writing him in that scene—the way I originally felt I had to write him—was out of character for him. He’s innocent and he’s brave, but he’s not impudent and rude, and he wouldn’t suddenly become belligerent even when facing overwhelming odds.

I had to look at how to rewrite the scene, how to make it both interesting and intense, yet stay true to Tanis’s character. Going back to the beginning of the scene and letting Tanis be himself led to a breakthrough—oddly enough—in Pelas’s character (which ultimately made him a reader favorite). 

3. Rethink a character.

If you suddenly bog and something isn’t working in the story, take a look at the characters in that part of the tale and try adding complexity or new depth to them. Reveal a new side of them that is plausible to the reader. Give them a hidden passion, a compulsion, or a secret love or torment. Any time you can add something new to a character’s personality, you give the reader more about that character to connect with. 

In the example above, I had been writing Pelas as a typical villain–flat, unimaginative, boring, actually. I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but when I took another look at Pelas (as a part of solving the problem with Tanis) I realized Pelas could be much more than he appeared. Even if it means going back to the beginning to add a nuance or hint here and there to set up your character reveal later, it’s usually worth it.

Rethinking a character from the ground up can often open entirely new paths through the story and pull you rapidly into breezy seas once more.

4. Change location—not yours but your character’s.

When something about a scene just doesn’t feel right, try putting the characters in a different setting. Instead of having them meet in a courtyard, move the exchange to a ballroom, a garden, or a dark alley.

Changing the scene will cast new shades upon the existing conversation and add new elements of danger or anticipation, longing, love, heartbreak or excitement. Sometimes we’re so focused on plot that we forget to take advantage of the setting, but setting can do so much to convey or engender emotion. It’s an invaluable tool.

You may end up changing the dialog you already have written to adapt to the new environment. Sometimes that shift of location is all you need to set a new course.

5. Don’t strand yourself on a reef of your own devising.

This is perhaps the most perilous hazard to keep an eye out for when sailing creative waters. 

As writers, we often have an idea of our destination. Some writers chart their path island by island (chapter by chapter). Others merely use the stars to guide them in the general direction they wish to go.

No matter your means of navigation, it’s all too easy to decide on a certain course and then become stalled by it. You make a decision about the path the story should take while just rounding the head at point A. Then as you’re sailing into port at point C, your next heading doesn’t make sense anymore. But you’ve decided on this heading because that’s how you planned the story. You’re already thinking it has to be that way. But you are the one who set that course to begin with. You can simply decide to go in a different direction.

This is almost always easier said than done. Firstly, it can be difficult to isolate which of the many decisions are the ones now stopping your forward progress—we make the rules, you see, then we have to follow them in order to keep continuity in the story; so we become just as bound by the rules we made as our characters are. The second problem faced when looking at this is the understanding that you have the entire story/plot/chapter/character arc planned out—the course is set!

But if that very course is what is sinking you, hadn’t you better rethink it?

I’ve experienced this with laws I established for my fantasy world or powers I’ve given to my characters. I’ve seen it with plot points decided on months ago that now just don’t make sense—or that cause unsolvable conflicts with later story threads, or even with the time it would take to develop the backstory to support the plot element I’ve decided must exist.

I’ve seen it with character back-stories and planned future conflicts and myriad other vortices I created for myself and proceeded to sail directly into as if I had no choice, as if the gravity of my own creation now exhibited more power than I did.

We have to be able to change our minds about our story or we’re no longer captaining our creation but enslaved by it.

I hope these ideas will help you to continue sailing free.

*    *   *

What’s your experience? Share your thoughts on writer’s block and any methods that have successfully gotten you out of the calm and back on course. 

Fear: The Most Undervalued Emotion in Fantasy

Friday, April 26th, 2013

I’m thrilled to host this guest post from fantasy author A.E. Marling (@AEMarling) in celebration of the upcoming release of his epic fantasy novel, Gravity’s Revenge

“The time for fear is past.” ~ King Theoden, The Lord of the Rings

In fantasy worlds, fear is the enemy. It swoops down on black wings to smash the heroes to the ground, to paralyze their hopes. It comes with talons and ghostly swords, with blazing eyes and green fire. It rusts men’s resolve. Turns allies against each other. It clears walls of defenders. It is the edge that no armor can stop. Cowardice to courage marks the most common arc of character growth in fantasy, possibly in all genres. For heroes to stand a chance, or even to remain standing, they must say goodbye to the butterflies ravaging their stomach. Anyone who reads enough might begin to believe that all fears should be smothered in their cradles. 

Read closer. Characters in fantasy novels fear all the time. They are cautious. They respect danger, trying to avoid the greatest perils. When they throw fear to the wind, it’s often because they have no other choice but one last desperate gambit.

Real-life heroes also fear. Soldiers in modern armies still experience the tearing sensation of numbness in the pit of their stomachs. They merely fear letting down their fellow soldiers more. I read an article in which a veteran said his greatest worry was that his mistake would get a friend killed.

“I do not fear either pain or death,” Eowyn of The Lord of the Rings said to Aragorn. “Then what do you fear, my lady?” “A cage.” Even the bold must fear something. If not, then we would have a hard time relating to them. They would begin to seem inhuman.

I hope my readers never meet someone who is truly fearless. There is a name for that condition: psychopathy. Bereft of emotion, psychopaths have only an intellectual understanding of danger. In one reported case, a psychopath broke into a man’s home, murdered him, had a beer from the fridge, and fell asleep beside the corpse on the sofa. (Clearly, this psychopath was not an intellectual.) He woke up in handcuffs. A person in that situation who has fear in their repertoire would be less likely to kill, fearing social recrimination if nothing else. Adrenaline would careen through his bloodstream. His heart would pound, his pulse race, his stomach cramp, and his lungs gulp air. He could never fall asleep.


The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect us from Violence

Even for us non-killers, fear has its uses. A performer on stage will always feel the rush, that tingling burst from the presence of hundreds of eyes. The greatest entertainers will expect the feeling, be ready for it, and use their heightened alertness and strength to amaze. Those without any urge to perform (or find the safest way to Mount Doom) may still have need of fear. In fact, it may save their lives. In the book The Gift of Fear, the author cautions that often people will imperil themselves by ignoring fears. A woman might, for instance, experience a chill before allowing a strange man to carry her groceries into her apartment. To avoid appearing rude or ungrateful, she might push away the creeping sensation that’s bristling its way up her spine. If she acts fearlessly and lets him inside she could well regret it.

“You have the gift of a brilliant internal guardian that stands ready to warn you of hazards and guide you through risky situations.” — Gavin de Becker, consultant to the FBI and author of The Gift of Fear

Some might prefer to call this inner sense the intuition. Whatever the name, adrenaline accompanies it and causes those well-known feeling, from trembling fingers to cold feet. The important thing to remember, Gavin de Becker writes, is that fear is in response to some external trigger. Even if our brain’s conscious processing has not yet caught on, we have to respect that our fear might be onto something. Stories will often have the theme of trusting one’s instincts. The wise old mentor might urge the hero to follow intuition and, in the same wizened breath, to stamp out every last spark of fear.

That's some slipper slope, Yoda.To be fair to the Jedi masters, they likely are cautioning against allowing fear to paralyze, or drive one to impulsive violence. But to deny all fear seems less than practical. “Ignore your doubts,” sounds too close to, “Ignore your intuition.” Heroes feel fear, and we should expect no difference from ourselves. When that sensation of ice prickles down our backs, we should first think what might have caused it. (But don’t freeze in the headlights too long.) Next, we should avoid thinking of fear as an evil. Not, “Oh, no, this is terrible!” Or, “I’m afraid, so I must be a coward.” But, “Ah, something important is coming, and my body is getting ready to fight.” I say it’s past time fear got its due in the fantasy genre. After all, I always root for the underdog. Especially if he is a terrifying mongrel that breathes fire and has three heads.

In my latest fantasy novel, a tragedy arises from an acute shortage of fear. The protagonist studies magic in a vertically inclined magic school. To reach the lofty altitude of the academy, she had to overcome her fear of heights and walk up a cliff. When the academy’s enchantments begin to fail, she senses the mounting danger but ignores her worries. She has grown too used to being bold. To save her school and her students, Enchantress Hiresha will have to regain a healthy respect for fear. She’ll need the full speed of her intuition to outsmart the mastermind holding the magic school ransom. Only with every instinct and every edge adrenaline can bring her will she have a chance to oust the invaders. Hiresha faces twelve to one odds in battle, and each step could end in a plummet.

“He who is without fear has no hope.” – Lord Tethiel, Gravity’s Revenge

Discover the fun fantasy loot at the Kickstarter for Gravity’s Revenge

 

Click to discover first chapters