Category Archives: Guest Writer

Guest Post: Dare to be Stupid

(…with apologies to Weird Al)

One of the things I noticed the other day in a conversation with Wordsmith was that I tend not to write stupid characters. My protagonists are invariably clever, brainy, wisecracking, wise, and have things to teach the secondary characters. On the Hero’s Journey, I am the wizard.

It’s not that I’m afraid to write characters who don’t know a lot, or who lack intelligence, it’s just that I don’t live in that headspace. I learned to read and write when I was three, and I was testing in at 12th grade reading levels in fourth grade — by the time I was nine. I’ve been called a geek and a nerd for decades, and it wouldn’t be far off, considering my love for science fiction, fantasy, and all the shades of worlds between.

When I write mystery novels, the detective always solves the crime at the end. (Can you imagine a mystery novel where the detective -doesn’t- solve the crime at the end?) The point of a mystery novel is that the mystery is solved and the villain (usually) is caught, or at least their crimes are foiled and justice prevails. Otherwise the reader is left without a sense of fulfillment for taking the journey of discovery with the detective.

The ending _has_ to make sense.

…orrrrr…. does it?

At one point in my writing training I took a class writing for children. One of the things they said was to observe children in their natural headspace — and you discover pretty quickly that Kid Logic Doesn’t Make Sense All the Time.

At one point in my comedic improv training we had a workshop where we were encouraged to let our grips on what Reality Was slip, in order improve our improv skills — to act like kids again, turning the ordinary into extraordinary. Where a bus wasn’t a bus anymore, but a spaceship. And nobody questions you if they’re playing along, but the adults are quick to deny your reality substitution (hat tip to Adam Savage).

Wordsmith and I had the privilege of keeping company to someone’s six year old, who blithely ignored the conversation of the adults around them playing their own alternate reality game (Ingress) to talk about her plans to build a Cheetah Machine, so she could go fast in some sort of race she was participating in. That sparked an idea for a story about her kid characters (which originated from a prompt I gave her: ‘show me your main character’s childhood favorite TV show and cereal….’). “Build a Cheetah Machine” is now one of our inside jokes.

“Stupid” is a stigma. We live in a literary society, where the lack of the ability to read and write is a barrier to communication, something to be embarrassed about. And yet we all started out without that ability at one point in our lives — and many of us are still ignorant of foreign languages, written and spoken. No matter how much I claim to be a writer and speaker, airdrop me in Russia and I am mute and unable to read street signs.

We should never, therefore, consider someone’s lack of ability to communicate on our level to be ‘stupid’ — but rather simply unable to meet us on our literary landscape.

And that brings me around to the front of this article — I’ve gotten too used to operating on my own level when it comes to building ‘my’ character in my universes. It’s my strong voice, yes. But expanding my palette of personae ought to mean getting out of my comfort zone. Creating a believable Luddite or similar without being trope-ish or cliche’ — those are caricatures of people rather than real people.

In reality, _all_ characters who grow are ‘stupid’ in their own way — not for lack of intelligence, but for lack of knowledge of needed skills or understanding to prevail against obstacles. Even our vaunted hero, be he or she a superscientist with PhDs or a celebrated crime detective, comes into the story with no specific truths defined save what they bring in with them. We follow them as they make false assumptions, or did not bring the right tools to address an obstacle, and we see them fail, not once, but multiple times. We see them struggle with their lack of actionable intelligence and learn from the experience in order to win the day. Their insights and deductions do not pay off on page 1, 2, or 3, but more like 201, 252, or 303, when they are (by the author’s decree) now smart enough to put all the pieces together to solve the puzzle.

No matter how outwardly smart a character may be, they are just as clueless as the people around them — the difference is that they step up to the head of the class first. But the wizard may be there ahead of them, giving them that added Cliffs Notes study guide to get off the ground, or redirect them when they fall off the rails.

So this one is for me; the next character I write? Will have no clue. I can be the Moon Moon if I want to be. I do not need to know how to Cat at the front of the tale. I do not Need To Be The Smartest Person in the Room, because when I was in school, I rarely was. And it was fine then, and it can be fine now.

It’s a worthy challenge, and I plan to play dumb and feel it out. We were all clueless once, and it’s been awhile since I remembered how. My head is full of trivia, and I got a swelled head because of it, when people react, ‘How do you _know_ that?” — the older I get the more I remember, and so it’s been tough to pretend not to know things.

You should all play with me. We’ll build our Cheetah Machines together and have a race.

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Developing a Better Psychic Detective

Psychic detectives occupy their own niche in the mystery novel genre.  They bend the rules of solving crimes because their deductive methods are not grounded in forensics by default.

A typical mystery requires _evidence_, _motive_, and _opportunity_.  It is the failure on the part of the perpetrator to cover his or her tracks completely that gives the detective the ability to pick up the hidden trail of clues.
An ordinary detective might find vestigial physical clues, notice things out of the ordinary, or find a credible eyewitness that would start them on the journey.
For a psychic detective, a new set of tools becomes available.  Maybe it’s the spirit world, with the ghost of the deceased still lurking about; maybe it’s the psychometry expert who handles an item and relates its history even though it and its owner are parted.  Or maybe it’s the premonitionist, who sees future events and appears at the crime scene as if drawn to it.
A psychic detective novel provides its own obstacles in the form of the detective themselves;  because forensics is science and psychic phenomena is paranormal, there will always be skeptics as to whether psychic findings are valid in a forensics-based court of law.   Sometimes the psychic leads the authorities to a vital forensic clue; other times their unerring (in)sight causes the suspect to confess.   It really depends on how accurate their powers are, and whether they, like tarot cards, are subject to a broad interpretation.
Consider the five senses; these are what normal detectives use.  Now layer on top of that the sixth sense — what form does the psychic detective’s ‘talents’ take? How do they work?  Do they cause problems to use, or can they be used at will?
The scientific method is about forming hypotheses based on available evidence.  The psychic method, in parallel, is about forming hypotheses based on available psychic input.
The cousin to both of these, lying somewhere in between, is the mystic detective.  Someone who uses Otherworldly abilities to turn up clues that normal, mortal forensics might have covered up.  The ‘magic leaves traces’ idea, similar to the psychic impressions, allows for the mage detective to pick up leads that the ordinary police (the traditional foil to the lone wolf detective) miss.
But remove the labels, and the tools of the detective have a common baseline: it’s all about Discovery versus Obfuscation, narrowing versus red herrings, and separating the truth from the lies and misleading conclusions.
Your detective, whether mortal outcast, gifted psychic, or trained magician, operates outside the circle of normal investigations; picking up the pieces where the police have left off.  A crime procedural perhaps goes down the wrong trail, accusing the wrong person; it is up to the detective to find the evidence that disproves the police’s suspect.
On the other hand, if this is a police/constabulary buddy tale, one officer might be the psychic/mage, the other the diad opposite who is grounded in the normal, mundane methods world.  The Holmes and Watson concept; the superlative detective and the skeptic that creates the framework for the empowered investigator to showcase his or her unique talents despite the partner’s assertion that ‘it shouldn’t work that way.’
It is, in a lot of ways, a well-worn trope of a plot idea, and so it is up to how well you create your character of the detective, powers, flaws, and obstacles, that makes your story stand apart from the others on the shelf.

Guest Post: A House of Prose, and Don’t be The Lauren

Everyone’s a critic.

When you ask for an opinion from someone on something you’ve done, what you’re secretly asking is ‘do you like this?’ And you secretly want them to like what you’re showing them. It’s the author’s curse; we want to be published, but we need to write something that people can relate to enough to want to buy.

The underpinnings of our society dictate that we have to ‘get along’, ‘be liked’, and ‘hold approval.’ Popular people are who we hear about; unpopular people are spoken about derisively or with hatred sometimes.

Books and writing our expressions of our writer’s soul. It is the innermost child (..or occasional lurking adult) seeking the light of day and the likes of others.

We pick our genre, the one we feel the most at home with, and we decorate the house of our novel home with the things that belong there. A family of characters, or a single person looking out the windows. A bunch of good-natured or mean neighbors to challenge the family. And then there are the things that try and burn the house down or break in and steal their stuff.

I say it’s a house here because the analogy is apt to me; we ‘live’ in the space of our novel when it’s going good, and then when it’s done, we do our best to spruce it up and invite guests to come visit.

I’ve lived in a few places over the years; that first moment when someone new sees my new place they always look around. Form impressions. Some of them look at the things I have on the walls, some of them look at my knickknacks, some of them look at my furniture, and a few of them poke their head in the bedroom.

“Nice place.” they say. Whether they’re being polite or not, I don’t know. But then again, I live in a rental, so it’s not a house I can do a lot of decoration with. I’ve been in a few houses that I’ve said, ‘this is a gorgeous place.’ I have things that I want in my house, so when I see one of those things, I appreciate it.

Now apply that idea back to books again.

Some folks can write an amazing epic tale that grabs you from the get go; some folks write a ramshackle tale that barely holds itself together; you can see the holes in the plot like you notice crayon marks or holes in the walls.

It is not a reflection on the owner/author; it is all about the _everything_ in the house/novel, rather than the bits that you notice that stick out to you.

I’ve got a friend that I’ll call Lauren. She wanted to be a writer, because I was one. She participated in the NaNoWriMo, because I did, and people really liked my first novel.

When she read it, the first thing she asked was, “Is this about you? Is that character there me?”

(The answer was no and no. Because I am not a six foot tall efficiency expert who drives a convertible.)

Then she started poking holes in the novel. Pointing out typos, a half-finished sentence here and there, that sort of thing.

“I know.’ I said, defensively. “It’s a first draft. Thanks.”

When she won NaNo for the first time, she gave me her first effort at writing a full length novel. Asked me what I thought.

It was a pretty good tale, but she got lost in the weeds when she hit Week 3 and there were two very similar characters that I kept getting mixed up, and there was another point where she was missing parts of the description because she was in what I call ‘fugue state’ — you can see the action in your head, and it’s rushing fast, but she didn’t put it all down on the page.

“Did you want me to make edits or did you just want an opinion?”

“Just an opinion. I know my writing sucks.”

“I liked it. It had some good suspense elements, and your heroine is genuinely likable. Your supernatural elements are solid, too. And your writing does not suck.”

“Do you think I could get it published?”

“I think it needs some work before you can get there. There are some elements that need more details, and your ending is a bit rushed. I’d like to see more of the world, too.”

“You hate it.” she said.

“No, I don’t hate it. It’s good! It’s a first draft and I like what I see here. That’s the nature of the Nano — nobody ever produces a perfect first draft, but the Nano makes you actually finish that first draft. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have finished it.”

Later, I heard she’d shared it with some of her other friends, with the additional rider comment that she felt I didn’t like it, because I didn’t think it was good enough to get published. Of course, she was giving it to friends who liked her as a person, and since she had predetermined for them that she was looking for praise, not critique, by way of ‘Friend didn’t like it, I’m hoping you will’ — she was told what she wanted to hear, rather than the truth. And when one of her friends, who is usually bluntly honest, said that it was ‘scattered and disorganized’, Lauren was done showing people. The manuscript went somewhere dark and never saw the light of another person’s eyes again, for fear of disapproval.

She tried her hand at writing the sequel the next year, because like many first time successful novelists, they still have a story left to tell. And it’s easier to work within an existing world than it is to spin up a brand new one.

But she got sick the first week, and stopped writing, and because she was a week behind, she gave up. This was the same year I wrote 100K words in the month.

She hasn’t attempted the Nano since.

For me, the NaNoWriMo is one of my life’s passions. I’ve done it every year for the past twelve. I talk about it a lot. Whenever I’m with friends or family, and I bring up the idea of Nano and they like the idea and are impressed with someone who can write that much in that little time, none of them really ask, ‘Yes, but are they good novels?’ If they do, or they ask when I’m getting published, I just grin and say, “I’m still working on that part. It’s a first draft, and a story that needs to be told, and one of these years I’ll like something enough to edit it and try and get it published. But it’s great practice and a grand adventure that I willingly take every year.”

They are invariably encouraging.

Lauren, if she’s also present, frequently jumps into the conversation with the “Hey, I wrote for the Nano too…” (Subtext: I want some of the positive attention you’re getting.)

“Oh cool!” is the response. “What are you writing this year?”

“Oh, I’m not likely to. I did it once about six years ago.” she says. “I have a bunch of good ideas, but I don’t have the time.”

Predictably, that means the focus goes back to me shortly after, because I have Ideas and Advice and Encouragement That You Should Play This Year. Nano is my passion, and I believe everyone should play at least once — if not more than once — because everyone has that lurking story in the back of their heads, triumphs, troubles,tasks, thoughts, tribulations, trout that traversed the trawler’s tail temporarily, those things. Tall tales. Truth, too.

At the end of one of those days, Lauren asked, “How come they never acknowledge me as an author like they do you? Do I suck that badly?”

“You didn’t show them your work.” I said. “You can’t know that they won’t like it until you show them, and the people you showed all liked it.”

“You didn’t like it.” she said.

“I did. I’m sorry you don’t think I liked it because I offered constructive criticism.”

“Well, I’m not a writer anyway.” she said.

Don’t be the Lauren, ladies and gentlemen. Write because you want to. Write because you have an amazing idea that’s half-baked — and understand that it’s okay to write a story that goes awry in the first chapter, as long as you follow the prose wherever it goes.

Don’t write because you need to be loved vicariously through your writing. I’ve written some of my best work when I was miserable, because pain is a crazy good resource to write out of sometimes.

Do write because you have a world you want to share, no matter how big or how small the space is. Do write because you want to finish the story, or at least take it for a spin around the block. Or the galaxy.

You never publish what you never write.

Nobody will ever see the house that you’re afraid to invite them over to visit. And when you decorate the walls with your art, be it imitations of the Masters or kid macaroni art, when you get your furniture of gleaming chrome and exquisite silks, stuff you, personally, might never be able to afford, but your characters can?

Don’t expect everyone who visits to want to move in. It’s your house of prose. You wrote it. You made the installment payments of 50,000 words or more (or occasionally less). Maybe the back rooms aren’t done. Maybe the roof has leaks that you didn’t see. Maybe the patio door is hung upside down. But it’s your home, the home of the tale you had to build from the ground up, and you ought to be proud of it.

You can always redecorate later, but you’ve got to turn the key in the lock and drag the readers in, first.

Build your first story, and you have the beginnings of a homeworld that is uniquely yours.

Guest Post: Push Yourself, Because Nobody Else (Usually) Will

It’s easy to write when you have a good idea and a good head of steam. The words just flow. You fall into the easy sense of your own writing bath, and it’s warm and comfy.

One of the things I love doing to Wordsmith is to give her a prompt for the day. It’s a game we play; a challenge to her writing limits by putting in something that she wouldn’t have thought of herself.

What she doesn’t know is that I’m giving her these things based on being inspired by her writing. (Well, she knows now.) Or based on things I’ve seen during my travels. Or just being ornery.

The idea is that by doing this, I’m facilitating her writing chops by having her rise to meet any assignment I give her. She doesn’t have to do it right away, she doesn’t have to succeed; it’s like serving a tennis ball over the (Inter)net. “Here, see if you can hit this.”

Sometimes she lobs it back with casual grace. Other times she smashes it back and I can’t help but return it with a similar piece of my own. And other times she chases it down but can’t quite wrap her head around the concept. So I know where her writing strengths and weaknesses are.

At one point in my life, I had someone doing that for me. “Write a scene without using any metaphors.” ‘Write a short story and use 6 out of these 10 words.’ “Describe an object without using the sense of sight.” “Write a scene about X, but don’t use ANY of these words.”

The first choices we make as writers is what defines our writing flow. But if we keep choosing that choice — the same stock characters over and over, the same situations over and over, we run the risk of getting too comfy with our writing — writing the same thing over and over. I’m sure you’ve seen it in some of your favorite authors. It should never be like that.

The best authors craft up a world, a self-contained character with a life independent of any of his or her predecessors, every time. You should never have ‘previous novel’s protagonist copy with their name and hair changed.’ as the main character twice in a row.

Change it up. Dare to be different. Dare to push yourself to craft something unique from the story before. Every year I do the NaNoWriMo I deliberately switch genres from the previous year, just so I separate myself from the last elements of the last novel with a whole year, if not more.

Mash two genres together that don’t normally go together. “Ballet Drama” and “Western”? Or maybe three– “Mystery” and “Survival” and “Historical Piece”?

If your first instinct is ‘you can’t, then you aren’t pushing hard enough. Try to come up with an idea to make the plot work. I mean, heck. The Japanese anime writers do it all the time…. check out Hetalia: Axis Powers, for example, where someone mashed up World Politics with Anthropomorphism.

(Yeah, I know. I said, ‘What? How did they ever think of that?’ too.)

When you find the right motivation, and the right idea, the push will become a pull. And suddenly you’ll be expanding your writing universe in a wholly unexpected direction…

Good luck…

Guest Post: No Mountain is High Enough

Sometimes when Novice Wordsmith and I write, we try and beat a wordcount bar; whether it’s the 50K of NaNoWriMo or some other arbitrary number, it’s a goalpost to shoot for.

I’ve had years where I’ve done really well, pushing 100K words, and other times where I barely made it over the bar.
But like the climbers that just finished a 19-day free climb of El Capitan, the reasons for doing it are to have a direction to climb.    What we find sometimes is that a story can’t be quantified by ‘X words’ — it demands more.  A short story becomes a novella; a novel becomes a trilogy, because ones words just can’t be contained by a wordcount _limit_.
Similarly, at times the words just don’t come.   They’re lodged in our unconscious writers’ block of iced out ideas, and we just stare at the blinking cursor or blank page and nothing happens.  We start stressing because time is ticking, and our wordcount average is falling behind.
And yet we’re capable of superhuman authoring bursts of thousands of words in a single day — when the story demands it.   When the time is short.   The ‘right’ way to win NaNo is to meet or beat your daily average, since there is a defined ‘stop’ time at the end of the month, but for me, once November is over, I used to stop writing no matter where I was in the month.
Fifty thousand, sixty thousand, fifty four thousand two hundred and one — it didn’t matter.  I’d stop cold, and say, “I’m taking a break from this.”
The mountain of words was too high.
But the thing is, not everyone can reach the summit of a novel.   Sometimes the avalanche of words comes crashing down and you think your novel is a confused mess of words without resemblance to the perfect climbing path, with waypoints and scene interludes just _gone_, and you don’t know what to do next.
Other times, the way is clear, the steps to get from point A to point B are crystal clear in your head and make it onto the page — or you discover an even better route to the top of the peak — that ability to place that ‘Finished/The End’ flag there with triumph, and you can look back down at the beginning of the novel and go, ‘wow.  I wrote all that?’
But really, don’t see your novel and your writing as one mountain.   There are several large mountains in the world that people attempt to climb every day; there are also small hills, rocky outcroppings, and the tricky climbing wall of haiku or a screenplay to tackle.   Every person’s writing ascent is different, done for their own rationale and reasons (or lack thereof) and finding what challenges you to keep writing — and your wordcount climbing — is something you find within, rather than without.
Moreover, whether you’re at the top or at the bottom, you should always be looking to the horizon, to see what the next mountain in your path might be.

Guest Post: Building Up a History

Part one of a short series of posts about the building blocks of writing, deconstructed.

I asked Novice Wordsmith to give me a prompt, with the intention of writing a small story involving said prompt. And that’s a secret lesson; sometimes your inspiration for writing needs a kickstart from somewhere else besides in your own head. It’s not about someone giving you an idea, really, more like striking the match to bring a light to a cluttered room of imagination of your own.
So here’s my assignment: Victorian, Steampunk level,Tea Cartel.
The current monarchy is a tyrant, and has outlawed tea because it poisoned the previous king. Which was his doing. ( Or hers, could be a queen)
How does the tea cartel work, who is in charge, and how long has it been going? Are they the ones who helped poison the last king,and are they in cahoots with the new king/queen?
———————
Softball prompt, really. I love steampunk. If you want to challenge yourself, write in a genre you aren’t good at; if you want to write for enjoyment, write in your comfortable space.  
 
The meta prompt that comes to mind from this is ‘how do you build a history for a fictional universe?’ It’s very easy (almost cheating) to put together a story in someone else’s world. It’s like building a prefab treehouse in someone’s backyard and not having to go chop wood and weave rope on your own.  
 
Working with a genre, however, just sets some of the environment variables. (You can tell that I’m a coder, can’t you….)
 
Steampunk embraces the idea of ‘retro’ tech — big old clunky steam powered, electricity arcing, big brass tubes sorta feel. It’s low tech materials with a higher tech functionality. It’s also considered ‘historical’, because it’s based in our past — usually the Victorian Age of England, where we got a lot of lovely writing, but also the beginnings of big industry and world exploration.
 
Those are my freebies if I want to accept them. But the parameters of the prompt itself — monarchy by tyranny, ascension by assassination? Those are the ‘must fill in’ items, in order to meet the terms of the challenge.
Today’s post is about building up a history for a fictional world. Because characters do not exist in a vaccuum of empty space; we join them, usually, somewhere towards the early middle of their journey, although a few notable exceptions start at a character’s birth. The rest of the world has been going on about them and around them, and stuff happened before they were born, in order to shape the culture, civilization, and legends — facts of the world as taught to them by others, in other words.
There are two ways to witness history — either ‘get it from others’ or ‘be a part of it.’ A protagonist in these sorts of adventures is going to do something noteworthy, sooner or later; an established adventurer has already done something of worth. An established noble is gifted their place in history by the achievements (inherited or not) of their family.
Being a student of history gives your novel a rising arc. The idea of being nobody-becoming-somebody is the walk of the fame and fortune seeker; the idea of being a someone-becoming-historical is often the tale of a prince/princess or other noble using their resources to achieve something outside of the reach of the common man.
So where does your character’s history come from?
In this case, we have the Tea Covenant – people who know that the previous king was poisoned by tea. We know that tea is important to these people, originally the staple drink of the realm, but now banned.
Some immediate thoughts come to mind; what is drunk in court instead?
Answer: Cappucino. And coffee. And now I’m imagining the new Queen as someone who is very jittery, and jumps at shadows. But she’s also high energy, and brilliant in her own right, but she employs an army of engineers to forge a kingdom that plans to go to war with their neighbors. A military industrial complex.
Let’s say that the former tea fields of the country have been razed and turned into factories. So that any tea that is to be had is either grown in secret, by individuals, or imported from overseas, or stored in warehouses as contraband by the chancellor. There’s a black market for tea…
…okay, I like the phrase ‘there’s a black market for green tea’, because it has some lovely layering of color schemes and ideas in there, so that’s going to appear as part of the narrative early on.
The royalty aspect is a large chunk of the prompt, so we ought to have some connection to the current government, either the ones in power, or the ones deposed.
Playing with someone in the deposed family is kinda tropeish, because then their aim is usually ‘get back in power’. Let’s go with someone less in line with the throne, but someone who is in contact with them. So we can get some glimpses of the crown.
These are things to keep in mind when selecting your stable of characters; we’ll come back to that in a later post. Today we’re just sketching out history; so start by listing significant events. So far we have the following:
– Coronation of the new ruler
– Proclamation of the outlawing of the purchasing and drinking of tea
– Funeral of the old ruler (if there is one)
– Stuff the old ruler did that was noteworthy — maybe he/she held The World Tea Fair
– Ascension to the throne by the deceased ruler – we want to know how long they were in power
– If we’re going to war with the nations next door, how successful were we in the past? So there ought to be some sort of armed conflict in the history books. We don’t own a lot of land from or neighbors, so either they’re friendly, or we couldn’t invade and annex them.
– Invading your neighbors because they grow tea sounds like a crusade.
Now that could happen in any world, but we want Steampunk elements, so let’s not forget scientific advances:
– Phlogiston engine invented. This is fun for me because phlogiston (check Wikipedia if you’re curious) was disproven in our world, but it’s got that steampunky feel when you talk about it. “Don’t burn tea. It has a horrible phlogiston quotient, and people have been known to have respiratory issues and dizzy spells from inhaling tea vapors.”
– Transportation milestones. Let’s make this country landlocked, so the advent of a railway system is how people get rapidly from one end of the country to the other. And we’re going to add some mountains to the south where building over the mountains is prohibitive, but on the other side is a tea-growing flood plain…. so I think I know where we’re invading.
– Airships vs. propeller planes — Another steampunk staple; flight. Putting a steam boiler on either type of conveyance is not terribly feasible, so let’s go with -very- limited flight, which means a flight over the mountains and back is a big exploration event. (And now I have an idea for a pilot character, one who claims his father was the one that took the flight, but he’s being discredited for not really making it all the way over the mountain range since he didn’t actually land.)
– Literacy – is history oral, or written? It’d be interesting to have a contraband book of reading your fortune in tea leaves as a prop item, somewhere in the book, and maybe a secondary character tries that out. But as far as history goes, let’s figure out some noteworthy authors / books in the nation’s history.
– Entertainment — what sort of things do people do when they have cash to burn? Is there a musical stage play that’s been running solid for five years (a record), but has to be edited because the main character drinks tea on stage? Or maybe it isn’t edited, and it’s a scandal that it isn’t…
– Food and Drink — Okay, tea is verboten. But what about tea cakes? Have the biscotti salesmen had a sudden increase in their fortunes? How much food is steamed in a steampunk universe, and what does it taste like? What does the common man eat versus the nobility?
The point is that one approach to building a good novel is to build the world around the characters before you write a single word of dialogue. The world is full of undiscovered things -and- discovered things – if you take a look at the present day, and said, ‘what are five inventions that I wouldn’t be able to do without’, or ‘what are three famous historical events that I know a lot about?’ You would answer something concrete pretty quickly. If you then go and ask people you know the same question, you’ll get different answers — some folks slightly different, others vastly different, depending on their age and background.
When you build a world, it’s all about who lives in it, yes, but where, how, and why they do while they’re living there is also just as important.
Sometimes the best beginning of a novel? Is before the beginning of the novel.

Guest Post: Getting By With a Little Help from My Friends

Writing a blog is a daunting task. Everyone and anyone can have a good idea, but past the initial ‘hey this is cool’ aura, a public blog lives and dies by its readership and authorship. But not in the way you might think.
Authors are driven by two opposing forces; writing and being read.

Some of us are heavily on the ‘writing’ side, where we can churn out mountains of text, some of it looking like snowy peaks, and others like coal mines with smoke pouring out of them, or the occasional volcano of a novel that blows up in the middle and spews ashen destruction everywhere.

Others are deeply moved to write by a need to  share writing with other people. To teach, to entertain, to be loved for your art of the amazing prose.

Writers block hits both types just as hard.

For a writer-side person, all it takes is a good kick of inspiration.

For a read-me type person, a little outside help is what’s helpful.

So here ya are, Novice Wordsmith.

It has been an honor and a pleasure to read your work, and to inspire you to write things. No matter what you do with this blog, you will always be a writer, and you will always have a fan in me, as long as I can see, and tell you just how far you’ve come along from where you were writing story fragments and leaning on cliches to where you are now, spinning worlds and universes and coming up with ideas and plot twists on the spur of a moment. I love the fact that you’ve chosen to share your love of writing with the rest of the universe of the ‘net, whether they care or not; you want to show others that writing is for everyone, writing is a passion, and with passion comes power.

Everyone has a novel inside of them. Whether finished or not, the more important part is the Idea, the Character, the constant Struggle to Succeed that they go through, and life — yours in particular — is a novel that is unfinished. You’re writing the hard chapter now, where the heroine is at loose ends and looking at a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in front of her.

In the novel, the hero or heroine can’t always solve things on their own. You learned as a writer to develop good supporting characters, whether foils, confidantes, staunch allies, comic relief, or constant reminders of why they do what they do.

You learned that obstacles make you stronger when you defeat them – and the hero or heroine (almost) always succeeds in the end by …what?

NEVER GIVING UP.

I’ve written blogs before. Advice blogs. Writing blogs. Ways to help me connect with friends and strangers, and strangers who became friends. Eventually I left those blogs behind, but they’re still there, as a reminder of who I was then, who I met at that time, and a smile or twenty of good memories because I lived through that part of the story, and though the folks I crossed paths with there have moved on, and so have I, sometimes I peek back at what I’ve done and remember. And say…

“…I wrote THAT?”

Exercise of whether it was good or bad is up to the reader. Hindsight is everything, concentration is often what’s lacking, and inspiration comes of being able to accept that not all ideas look good on the surface, but sometimes start as obnoxiously ugly first drafts.

And sometimes, as you’ve found, it takes a little help from a friend to get things going again. Of being able to fall back to where you were before you were this awesome, giving yourself permission to be bad for a little while so you can find the good parts in the brain-muck that is writer’s block.

Some of the best novels have come out of horrible ideas.

Some of the worst novels started out amazing but ran out of steam or premise.

Some of them have even been published.

Quit worrying about being perfect today. That’s what editing is for.

Give yourself permission to write badly. But write something. Nobody judges painters when they create misshapen faces, bleeding clocks, or crayon drawings — some of them even get paid for it, too. Perhaps you’re trying to beat out the writing of some literary idol you aspire to be like, and you shouldn’t — because they have editors too.

Wordsmith, you have people who like your stuff here. And others will find it in time. For being someone who doesn’t market herself much at all, you have a following — and even if they aren’t a legion, it only takes one fan to make you realize that someone likes your stuff.

Hi. Can I be your number one fan?

Whether you accept it or not, I’m here to help you out (for her amazing fans, I’m giving her a break so she can get her writing chops back under her — don’t worry, she’ll be back, but you could speed up the process by leaving her a note or giving her a like or something….).

Beware! I am invading your blog with bizarre ideas that are not your own!

…um… prompt, please?

Guest Post: Your Music Versus Their Music

Let’s face it. You have musical tastes. Whether it was the music you grew up with, or the music that spoke to you, or the music that someone gave you on a mix tape, or the soundtrack to one of your favorite movies, we are a species and a culture that loves their tunes — and someone else’s tunes are at times ‘noise-that-you-don’t-like’.

Stop for a moment and think about what music lives on your iPod, WinAmp, or on your playlist for Pandora — or, if you’re not part of the iThingy generation, your CD collection, or (if you go that far back) vinyl and cassettes.

You’ll see that your music defines you, more often than not. Listening to a song can take you back to who you were and what you were doing when you listened to the song — maybe it’s about someone you dated, or classes, or maybe it was played at your graduation — perhaps by you on an instrument of your choice. Maybe it was the in-thing when you were growing up.

I trust you see where I’m going with this.

Your characters ought to have their own musical tastes. Maybe it’s the same as yours. Maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe it’s an anthem for who they are as a person — and maybe the secret to their character is hidden in the lyrics.

Have you ever listened to a song’s lyrics and said, ‘this reminds me of a friend?’ And yet when you played it for them, they said, “I don’t get it?”

Realize that they aren’t wrong, and neither are you. What it is is that you, as the author-attributor (yes, I know that’s not a word), are seeing the person with your own filter that happens to be a song. And so your perception lends itself to music.

When you’re the author, though, you will almost always match the perfect song to your character, because they can’t help but agree with you — unless you have characters that defy initial definitions and ideas and strike off on their own – to with, marching to the beat of their own plotline.

One of the things that I gave the Novice Wordsmith as a challenge, more than once, was to say, “Take this song that I’m giving you. Look up the lyrics, listen to the song, and then apply it to a character of yours. Figure out what sort of situation they would be in for these lyrics to make sense. Go.”

I, personally, am somewhat musically driven; I’ve written whole short stories and parts of chapters while being inspired by music. It didn’t even have to have lyrics – sometimes it’s just a feeling. After all, how often does listening to the instrumental soundtrack to a movie conjure up memories of the movie itself in your head?

(And just to prove the point: “Everything is awesommmmme!” o/~)

You should try it. It’s a different way of seeing the words and getting some inspiration. Instead of having ‘writing music’ in the background to help set the mood for you, why not have the music take a more active part of the writing by choosing the song directly?

A bit of trivia here: My very first NaNoWriMo started out exactly this way. Lacking inspiration, I turned on the radio, and started writing using the first song that came on — Sting’s “If I Built This Fortress (Around Your Heart).” Suddenly I had a mental flash of a guy driving down the highway doing 75 in a convertible, and a character snapped into focus. I let the lyrics and that mental image drive the introduction, and decided that I’d take that journey with that character — wherever it went.

You can go either way with this, really: have the song write the character, or have the character pick the song that goes with them. It really is as easy as the character turning on the radio — and then deciding whether to hit Skip/Shuffle or listen and live.

Let me know how it goes for you, and whether you tuned in or tuned out.

Guest Post: Start Big or Start Small, But Where it is Becomes Your Call

(Meant for yesterday.)

Morning folks.  Whether you have 0 words or 500, if you’ve hit your first roadblock, or the wordcount just isn’t coming as fast as you’d like, it’s time to look at what you’ve got and seeing if you blew through the easy words in your rush to get rolling.

That first hour of writing on a blank canvas can be deceptive; you put down the first stuff that comes into your head and burn through your Big Idea, Premise, and Opening Lines pretty quick.  But once the initial framework is on the page, the inevitable ‘Now What?’ comes into play.

If you’re feeling a little uncertain where to go from here, there are two paths you can take today: (insert Phil Keoghan of The Amazing Race impression here): Stall, or Start Walking.

  • In Stall, you look back at what you’ve already written yesterday and add some details.   Add colors, sounds, smells, extra features, musings, impressions, extra dialogue to give your first characters in their first scene some more depth of focus.    For example, this year I started off with a brief sketch of a crime scene, and then pulled back a little to tease at the timeframe — the distant future.   I originally described the devastation of an explosion as simply ‘lots of bodies’, but when I doubled back, I added in damage to the building, the parking lot, and then described the era in more detail.    I actually described the main character as something more than a gender and ethnic background, and gave the secondary character some more lines so that he wasn’t introduced just to walk off and get coffee for my detective.
  • In Start Walking, you want to think ahead to what’s on the horizon,or, to wit, ‘where is your next scene going to take place?’    This is not a one man, one room play you’re writing here, odds on.   Whether you’re writing a Hero’s Journey or an Everyman/Everywoman slice of life tale, or a Superhero(ine) Saving the City, they’re not likely to be in the place they were when you wrote on Day 1.   Ask yourself, ‘where do I need to get the main character next?’   And start writing towards that direction.  Do they need to make any special preparations?  (An odd reverse example is Mr. Rogers, who fascinated me as a child by having the odd ritual of changing his shoes while talking to the audience after he came into the house.)    Do they tell anyone where they’re going?   Will any of the scene 1 characters be coming along, and are they opposed to doing so?

The point is that right now, today, Day 2, you are building potential. Potential energy, potential wordcount, and potential motion, along, of course, with potential plot.   Being able to lay tracks ahead of you or buy time to figure out where you want to be is still wordcount; the goal here is to breathe life into your novel by giving it enough detail and brea(d)th so that you want to keep writing in this space.

Eventually we’ll be setting things on fire (not necessarily literally) and maybe blowing stuff up, but it doesn’t have to be today.   Days 1 and 2 for me are usually reserved for either detailed worldbuilding, or meeting the main character, or setting up the stage where the main character will walk into any moment.    Or any combination of the three.

Hope this helps, and feel free to suggest a topic for a future guest post….

Guest Post: Swords and Board, not Swards of Bored

At the heart of any good swords and sorcery novel is the iconic swordfight. Like other fights, it’s easy to see the fight in your head, but hard to master. For today’s post, I’m going to share a little light on how a swordfight perhaps ought to be laid out, in three sections:

Energy, Strikes, and Superlative Moves.

My qualifications for this is that I used to fence (two weapon, epee and saber) as a hobby. I also used to help teach the foil class on weekends, assisting the instructor with form and refereeing matches.

In the past I’ve said ‘know your topic, and write what you know’, but this is one of those places where you can’t just watch someone else pick up a sword and go at it — in fact, fencing in particular has an additional layer of rules on it that can confuse the average person — right of way is important, and counters play a huge part in who officially gets the point, even though the other person might have been attacked first. So today is all about what it’s like to fence from the inside of a helmet, rather than on the sidelines.

Energy: You don’t have unlimited amounts.

Fencing weapons are very light — a competition epee’ typically weighs less than a pound, for example. But you still need muscles to use one, because the whole point (no pun intended) of fencing is to exercise lots of muscles in order to poke the other person hard enough to set off the trigger, or at least convincingly bend the blade. You’re constantly holding this thing out at arm’s length, and fending off someone trying to beat your blade aside so that they can rush in and stab you in the chest. Parries — deflecting the blade to the side – also require some strength to do.

Writing a fencing scene should therefore include some level of fatigue after doing it for awhile — no, your arms don’t ‘just feel like lead,’ that’s cliche’ — but rather, it gets harder and harder to not get your blade pushed aside, and your thrusts will be slower when your arm doesn’t respond with the same explosive quickness. Moreover, point control becomes harder as well; your hand and wrist start trying to compensate for your wavering arm and the point starts moving around. (Pinpoint control is used for something called a ‘disengage’, which is to wait for someone to try and parry your blade aside, and you dip it around their blade while it’s going in the wrong direction.)

Remember the rule of ‘show don’t tell’ — don’t just say you’re tired, show me how the character is tired.

Strikes – Location, Location, Dislocation

Hands up if you’ve ever had a character attack someone with ‘a flurry of blows’.

Yeah, I did that too. I have news for you. Unless you’re just going for first blood in a swordfight, merely flailing at someone isn’t likely to hit them — or hit it off with your reader. Just telling them they’re fighting ‘a veritable whirlwind of blades’ doesn’t really describe it unless you’re documenting ‘Swordnado’ or something. Make the reader, if they’re in the hero’s pants, and on the defensive, feel the stress and worry about incoming stab wounds in such a way that they won’t want to be hit.

The best fencers in the world can aim at a point on their opponent about the size of a quarter, and hit it, even though their opponent is moving. If you’re going for a high detail swordfight, name the locations where that next slash, stab, or cut is going. Whether it lands or not is often the beginning of a losing battle for the target. One of my favorite lines from a novel describing a swordfight, paraphrased from memory:

“He was the best I’d ever encountered. I tried every trick I knew; ripostes, feints, beats and sidesteps. But no matter what I did, his point almost never wavered, save to divert my own blade from its attack, and I couldn’t keep it from pointing at my eye. And he knew it; he was just trying to wear me down enough to where he could finish the fight with a simple lunge.”

In other words; any significant attack needs to have a target; if you’re truly blocking out a detailed swordfight, see the fight in the head. Do what the referees do; replay the attack that you saw in your head, right on the page.

“First attack is left to the chest; attack fails, absence of blade. Counter is parried in quarte; riposte misses. Lunge from the right connects, off target. Counter from the left strikes true, touch to the left.”

Hm. Well, that explains why fencing is not exactly the best average spectator sport. Let’s try again:

“Gary threw himself forward, blade stretching out before him with the intent to run his opponent through and end the fight quickly. But Ryan simply hopped back, and Gary ran out of momentum just short of his chest. He barely shifted his weight back to his back foot in time to flick his wrist to the right, knocking Ryan’s counterattack aside so his blade slid away at an angle along his sword. He rolled forward on the balls of his feet, throwing his weight at his opponent and extending his arm further this time, but there was nothing there to hit but air as Ryan lunged past him and down, scoring a line along Gary’s pants without drawing blood. Gary twisted as Ryan tried to recover, and this time he caught Ryan across the back of the shoulders with the flat of his blade, and Ryan stumbled back.

“Could have taken your head off with that.” Gary bluffed.

Superlative Moves

Swordfighting for real is not a video game, or a movie. Theatrical fencing looks bigger than it is, because it’s got to be telegraphed for the audience’s eye to follow. Most of it is carefully choreographed, with all of the moves and counters mapped out, telling a story in steel until its ending.

Your swordfighting scene does not have to ascribe to that. Take a look at your combatants; someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing will have very little control, burning energy and flailing wildly about and pretty much announcing their moves well before they become a risk of contact. Highly-trained fencers can usually get it done in one to three exchanges. Equally matched skill fencers will have a lot of what my instructor called ‘phrases’ each attack must have an answer, or hit or miss, and each counter is an attack that follows that answer. Sure, if one person goes full on the defensive, they can just block, counter, and dodge, but eventually you run out of words to describe such things.

Some folks fall into the trap that comes party from anime; lovingly describing a “supermove” that when it boils down to it, is a single attack.

“He focused his chi in his hands and arms, feeling the flow of power up them and building into an explosive strike that started in his hips with a step forward and swing and ended with the blade coming forward in a two handed chop that was intended to cleave his enemy in two.”

That’s overkill.

Sometimes you need that level of detail, for the last ‘finishing’ move that ends the fight. But that is also very tropeish. But for the middle of the fight, the part that lasts (normally) the longest, sometimes economy of style is what is called for. After all, there are only so many sword related words you can use, and thrusting over and over at your opponent can be rather boringly repetitive. So use the lessons I suggested above; think about energy, location, and have the former decay, and the latter change up. Where do you want to stick that sword this time?

A good rule of thumb is to take a look at the scene you’re writing and count the number of adverbs; if you only have a few, that’s not so bad. But if it contains a lot of ‘strongly,’ ‘fiercely’, ‘frantically’, ‘frenetically’, ‘quickly’, and the like? Mix it up a bit more. True swordfights are less about the ‘endless rain of attacks’ and more about the individual, significant parts of the fight, with each attack being worthy of a sentence to a paragraph describing why it is a _highlighted_ part of a fight.

Hope this helps!

PS. And oh, by the way? This lesson also works for martial arts fights.