Tag Archives: conflict

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.

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Hopeless Romantic

I have been trying for months to write this post and do it justice. Romance as a genre and a subgenre have made a huge impact on my writing, as they’ve been a big part of it since the beginning. Action was always a close second, but romance had my attention from the get go and it never let go.

Romance, and any intimacy, really, is as personal as it gets, sometimes. When it comes to love, it’s an  emotion in control of you, it has you wanting to press up against someone, brush your lips across theirs, slide your hands up their sides, pull them in close, kiss them hard and hot and not come up for air until you have to. It’s intoxicating and exciting, with a strong draw and a very good chance to write itself.

Sex itself may not be the most personal. Anyone can do it, it can be a one-night stand and a bad experience, or it can be the most invigorating thing your character’s done, but still make them feel like they’re missing something.

The first step for romance is always chemistry. How does your couple get along at first? What draws them to each other, or are they butting heads from the beginning?  The cultivation of their chemistry, from weak to strong or strong to stronger, can be just as slow or quick as you like it, something that is sometimes dictated by the pace of the novel itself.

The second step is obviously to plot out the course of the relationship. It can range from rough and rocky with triangles galore, to mostly smooth sailing with bumps to overcome. What sort of problems do they have to overcome together or separately, publicly or privately? Is one of them heavily guarded or scatterbrained?

Step three is previous partners, which can have a wild impact on the way they treat the current one. The damage done, or not done, can set the pace for the next romance just as much as the chemistry can, and it can give you more or less to work with depending on what you decide. Old partners who hurt them, psychologically, emotionally, or physically, can contribute to intense scenes, unexpected reactions, and long, quiet nights curled up together, or apart.

These elements fill out what you need, but above all else, you’ll need passion, care, the intensity I mentioned, and a fire to blaze, however tall or short it reaches.

Love, in its own, is a strong, beautiful emotion that can turn ugly or be something so deeply cherished or longed for. It creates comfort and happiness, warmth, amusement. It is a turn on a ride that you never want to end, where being held by them can be either the most satisfying or excruciating thing to endure, depending on when it happens.

Some genres/sub genres may be just as easy for you as this is for me, how natural it is, how effortless it is to write out the way to people come together and chronicle their passion, however short-lived it is, or if it lasts the rest of their lives. Their intimacy and struggles in the midst of a large conflict, those sweet moments captured in the soft language and loving glances.

I figured I’d end this with one of my favorite quotes, which comes from a book I’ve never read: Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell. Gorgeous as it is evocative.

Happy loving~

-The Novice Wordsmith

Guest Post: The Horror Show

October’s coming up, and as such the airwaves are full of Halloween themed ideas and the inevitable horror movie. And of course, with that sort of inspiration, some of us decide to try their hand at horror novels.

We all know what that means, really; naming our fears and writing about them in such a way that someone else can experience what someone would go through if they were afraid of such things.

But hang on a tick… most of our experience with horror is through movies, and novels don’t often relate well to this. A novel is something that has a different pacing, and is missing the visual element.

It is all too easy to make a horror novel about the same cliched tropes that we’ve seen before, in said movies, and then it’s less scary. It becomes expected. In theme. And it will lack the authenticity that a horror story needs to scare the reader.

I used to work in a haunted house; they no longer scare me. I’ve lost my suspenders of disbelief, so that I know that they’re just actors. I can be startled, but not scared. Not like when I was a child and the unknown darkness held menacing things.

Some horror authors use the terror that they felt in order to build up a story. But fear itself is often wordless; panic, fright, and the need to Get Away are things that defy easy description.

Impending Doom is a little easier to write; so is Pain, and Dread. Fear is an emotion, like anger; it just lends itself a little less easy to the mind.

Try this exercise. And it’s a tough one… write about a superstition, WITHOUT using the words ‘fear’, ‘afraid’, ‘terrified’, ‘avoid(ance)’, ‘scared’, and ‘phobia.’ Remember, a good author does a ‘show, don’t tell’, and using any of those words is telling.

Here’s my take:
—————————–
He couldn’t turn his back on the water, even though the sand sculpture demanded his focus. He could hear the sinister sound of the surf, rustling behind him like a beast in the bushes. The sculpture site he had been given was far too close to the sea for his liking, and he gritted his teeth as he had to lean down to add some detailing to the mermaid that he was creating out of damp sand.

Let others rely on doing runs to and from the surf to get more water for their works. He had a portable sand block press of his own design, and a wheeled dolly with plenty of purified water jugs on it, and an hour and a half to craft a winning entry. Plenty of time before the tide came in and erased it all.

The wind ruffled his hair; the sky was overcast, and it was a lousy day to be on the beach, but the event planners had set this up months in advance, and they couldn’t control the weather.

He tried not to think about the sign that he’d seen on the way to the beach: ‘Tsunami Warning.’ It had been there since the sixties; there had never been a tsunami off the Oregon coast in a hundred years.

But there always was a first time for everything. He’d seen the pictures of Indonesia and Japan; huge morasses of water, consuming everything in its wake. Cars and buses floating along in the water like some giant bathtub toys, houses collapsing under the unexpected deluge of water coming down the street.

He had been given one of the sites closest to the waterline. He hadn’t been given permission to change with someone else. The safety of the boardwalk was two hundred yards away, possibly closer to three.

He wanted to just quit the contest, because those clouds overhead and the sky had gotten darker. Wasn’t the first sign of a tsunami heavy clouds? He couldn’t remember.

Just the thought of being swept out to sea made him want to look over his shoulder instead of paying attention to the work in front of him.

Was the sea a little closer?

It was. It surely was.
—————————————

Balance the internal with the external. Fear is internal. Stimulus for fear is external. It’s something you see – or can’t see. It’s something heard which doesn’t match normalcy. It’s evidence of something Not Right. Or simply feelings of wrongness sometimes.

Think about something that makes you scared for a moment. You can feel your skin crawl, the tension, the want to hide somewhere where it’s safe, or at least lighted. Then try and put the character who is being scared in your own shoes. Can you make them feel that fear, in their own voice, in their own head, and in their own mind?

I think you can.

It’s uncertainty of their next moments. It’s worrying about what MIGHT happen before it does, and then what DOES happen is often unexpected anyway.

And it’s worse than they imagined.

Another element of horror is the fact that it’s drawn out. The inevitable chase scene. The character becomes the prey in a hunt. Trying to escape. Because as you well know, anyone who fights the beastie? Usually dies. Horribly.

In horror, the big bad nasty almost always has the upper hand. They make the protagonist feel mortal. Vulnerable. Weak. Because if they weren’t afraid of it, if they could outfight it, outrun it, or outthink it right off the bat? It’s not scary enough. Their confidence and skill will carry them through.

Of course, there’s always the reversal — the misplaced bravado route, where they think they’ve got it covered – and then they don’t.

Now that is the source of even bigger fear. Maybe they escaped with their life after being foolish enough to brace the proverbial tiger in its lair. And they are scarred by the near-death experience. (Possibly literally.)

That’s a key: any fear a character has is not something they can easily shrug off. Any horror that a character faces has to be something that they are already afraid of to begin with, or something that can apply that (un)healthy fear of that after that first encounter.

It doesn’t have to be blood and guts, or supernatural things thrashing people around, or demonic possession, or aliens, or zombies or vampires… I was rather surprised to see how many people are afraid of clowns.

But that doesn’t help you, does it?

What should be your horror vehicle? What should you make people afraid of?

Anything. You. Want.

A skilled enough writer can make anything menacing. Items can be cursed. Food can be poisoned – or worse. A normal person could turn out to have a hidden past. Or change right in front of their eyes. Sometimes the scariest things of all are things we take for granted to be harmless — until they aren’t.

The thing you want to keep in mind when writing horror is that the object of horror has to regularly keep pushing at the characters. It must continue to vex them, whether it starts eating them one by one or keeps them from leaving the proverbial island (or both), it’s got to be something that they can’t get around or away from that easily.

Just like things we’ve been afraid for for years.

You can be afraid of anything, really — heck, just check out the List of Phobias on Wikipedia, or phobialist.com. Pick something you’ve never heard of before as a challenge, and start from there… and don’t be afraid to write about it.

Putting your Hero Through Their Paces

Also known as: Deliberately Doing Mean Things to your Hero.

One thing that got me when I was reading one of Friend’s stories, about one of his characters meeting him, was that the character asked, “Why are you doing this?”

His response was, “It makes a good story.”

Which, if I were that character, would make me feel very forlorn. Why is my creator putting me through all of these rigors if they know what it will do to me? Don’t they love me? What the hell did I do to deserve this?

Thinking about it, probably all of my characters would ask me that.

The reason is the story. It is the rigors and the hardships and the tough, stress, anger, sorrow that makes everything so real and so tangible, it puts more life into the character, it is another way to relate and fall in love with them. If they experienced nothing traumatic or alarming, nothing heartfelt or upsetting, wouldn’t you feel even more distanced from them?

I still remember another friend giggling madly as he thought up embarrassing situations to put his character in. It amuses us, and there’s a point to it. It helps development, it helps move plot, it helps us see the dimensions of not only the story but the character themselves.

Tossing a villain at them that they can’t kill right away, shoving them into a situation where they struggle, forcing them to find a way out, putting them in the face of adversity, it is all for the sake of the story. It is what we do as story-tellers. We love our characters, we want to see them flourish, we want them to go above and beyond, and we put them in these situations because we know they can find a way out, and because it will help them in the long run, to get to the point we want them to be at.

One thing I will say is that you shouldn’t just throw something at them just to do it, and if you end up not liking what you did, you CAN go back and change it. Do not put them in something that you don’t like, and unless it’s your intention, that you want, that will aid the story, don’t put them in something without a way out in mind.

It is probably one of my favorite things, to find new things to put them up against, because of how dynamic it makes the story. Action, suspense, thrill. It keeps the reader on the edge (and sometimes the writer), hooks them in and shows them something unexpected.

Your character might think you’re a sadist, but– actually, I’m not gonna finish that statement, that sounds really awful.

Don’t be afraid to do mean things, if you like where it takes your hero. Remember, they’re on a journey, and you decide where it goes, but it should always contribute to the story in some way. You can apologize later with some good karma, if it works out.

-The Novice Wordsmith