Tag Archives: writing skills

What Does YOUR story mean?

 

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I’ve always struggled — in most of my professional writing career, after the blissful stage where I only wrote for myself — with making my writing and stories mean something. Maybe it was the crap influences in my childhood who told me that ‘just writing fantasy’ was fine and all that, but eventually I needed to write things that actually meant something. It can’t just be that though, because I’ve always felt a drive to write more than just a story.

Maybe all of this is just all my insecurity and doubt coming home to roost.

It’s the plight of most writers to feel this way. I read somewhere that, at the very least, writer’s write to entertain. But most of us write to try to inform, educate, inspire, engage. So I’m hope to God pretty sure that I’m really not alone in all of my what-do-I-mean angst.

I can’t help but think of this in the light of current world events. Well, USA events, but it’s affecting the whole world, so yeah.

Meaning: I want my books to make people think when they’re out there. I want to inspire and engage and teach. Yes, I’ll always write stories, because I’m one of those ‘if I don’t write it out it just plagues me forever’ writers. But I want to go above and beyond that. I want it all to mean something.

I get a little hung up on how exactly to go about doing that. The first example that jumps to mind is the Orson Scott Card route, of exploring deeply philosophical questions about humanity and morality through science fiction. He does a lot of telling-not-showing, and it seems like he had these deeply moral issues in the back of his head as he wrote the story. Whereas I get characters yelling at me and write them so they’ll be quiet.

So I guess what I’m really struggling with is a way to take my innate character-yelling and transform it. The story comes out, sure, but it’s still just a story. What is the step between characters and plot coming together and then… making it more?

It’s probably the opposite of that. That the meaning to be explored should be taken first — and then add the characters and plot. But how do I do that? Seriously – I want someone to give me a flow chart on how to do this, because I feel like I missed something along the way.

I want to write about environmental issues and the reality of how this relates to economics — so I’ve built solarpunk into my world. But is it really teaching someone anything, or exploring how a world like this works? … I’m afraid it’s not enough.

I have strong belonging, friendship, and what it means to be human themes especially in my current series, but I’m not sure it’s so obvious. I get lost in the plot and the interactions of the characters, and sometimes I think that takes away from the fact that I wrote these two people with the idea that they’re lonely and different… and in each other they find not only a place to belong, but start affecting the world around them for the better.

I don’t feel that it’s enough.

(Maybe I’m just not smart enough — or smart in ‘that’ way? I want to interview Card and figure out his method… and when he feels like he’s really got it.)

I think all of this can be put in the category of learning to take a first draft and make it a second draft — something that, with growing horror, I’m realizing that maybe I haven’t ever done before. I’m going through developmental edits with a professional editor for the first time and getting a crash course in things I didn’t even know were a thing (upcoming blog post on that later! It’s a little nerve-wracking and kinda feels like the floor has been taken out from under my feet).

Of course, who really knows — because an artist’s plight is never feeling like something is ever ‘done.’ It can always be better. There can always be more. Despite knowing this, I still feel that I’m missing some sort of intrinsic lesson on how to get from my A to my B. For all I know I’ll get an epiphany tomorrow and suddenly realize how it works, or I’ll read an article that connects it all — or the most likely outcome, my editor will prod me into understanding what to do.

But for now, I’m definitely feeling a little worthless and like I have no idea what I’m doing, and I’d love to move this discussion out to you, dear readers.

Do you worry that your story doesn’t ‘mean’ enough, especially in light of current events? How do you give meaning to your story? Do you start with the world, the characters, the lesson you’re imparting? If you’re a character writer like me, how do you keep yourself from getting carried away in their interactions? How to you keep yourself from being off subject/too preachy?

 


Drive and Depth: Debating My Least Favorite Writing Rule

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I’m coming to the uncomfortable conclusion that I need to cut a lot from the second in the series I’m writing. I continually waffle back and forth depending on the day, of course. But there is a thread of truth in the idea that I’ve written content in this book that doesn’t drive the plot forward.

Does is portray intriguing characterization? Definitely. Rich emotion and relationships? Oh, yes. Interesting dynamics and world building? You betcha. Forwarding the particular thread of plot for this novel? Well…

It is the second in the series. So some parts of me say, there’s leeway! People will care about these characters now (as it is the second book), so they’ll want to read about these fun interplays that delve deeper into the dynamics of the world and how the characters fit into it (and each other)! Then I’ll bring in the real clincher for this novel, and off we go.

But the more I read, the more I get the feeling I really need to start cutting. Or, somehow, shorten the scenes I’ve written. There seems to be a lot of advice being churned out — or maybe I’m just now paying attention to it — about how every scene needs to drive the plot forward, to build on the scene before it.

I think I’m pretty good on the building from previous scenes. If the difficult of extracting one of my scenes without collapsing part of the story is anything to go on, I’m good at that part. But not all the my scenes necessarily drive the plot forward.

But then part of me wonders — what does that really mean, drive the plot forward? Sure, you’ve got the main storyline of what occurs that hopefully follows a theme, maybe teaches a lesson, hitting upon human moments and concerns. But then there’s this whole nebulous character part of it.

Characters are what drive the story. Characters are what make readers actually care about the story. But to have characters, you have to have characterization, growth, interplays and dynamics. Which I absolutely adore, both as a reader and a writer.

So how much characterization is too much? How much of the book can be character focused, and how much solely plot?

I know the aim is to weave both of these together, so they seamlessly slide into each other and catapult the whole story forward. So maybe my real problem is learning how to do that more effectively.

But that can’t be quite right, because I still have 148k words on this mammoth of a book, and even if I did still start the ‘action’ earlier and weaved everything else in later, that’d still be the word count. So I’m back to — too many scenes that involve just characterization.

Which brings me to my second complaint of the rule that all scenes must move the plot forward.

When I started writing, I was fascinated by making everything real. Real emotions, real interactions, real situations (well, as real as you can get with dragons flying around). While I’m not as obsessed with it now as I was then, there’s still a part of me that yearns for a plot to not be so straightforward.

Real life has dead ends. Clues that aren’t clues. Unfortunate bunny trails. Long walks that turn into long conversations that no one quite remembers fully, but they know what it felt like. Boredom. Confusion. Unclear motives. Self-loss.

I’m not advocating long drawn out scenes about doing dishes or being stuck in traffic for an hour. That’s boring. There’s a difference between relaying boredom and being boring. But at some point, I get bored with scenes that do nothing but drive forward. Life is fuller than that. Life has more mystery and more depth.

I want to stop and savor. Enjoy the world I’m immersed in. Really get to know the characters, and feel what they feel. Pick apart their minds and their motivations, and curl up inside their heads.

But. Too much can mean a story that drags.

So. Where is the line, do you think? Between plot and character; between drive and depth? Where do you draw your line in this tug of war?


Staying True To Your Story: A #FicFest Update

When revising your manuscript with an editor, how do you handle all of the changes when it can feel like the story isn’t yours anymore?

Well, first you have to look at that sentence and realize it’s misleading. If you’re making a change (based on advice, your own realizations, or aliens controlling your brain), it’s still YOU making the change. It’ll be your words, your expression, your ideas on how to implement it.

A while ago I read that you can’t copyright ideas in fiction. The only thing that is truly ‘yours’ is how you use your words. Which, if you think about it, really makes sense. Because if only one person had the copyright on dark mysterious vampires I’m pretty sure the paranormal romance market wouldn’t exist.

Kidding! Kidding. Seriously, there’s a lot of other neat stuff in the genre, but you see what I mean.

But I’ve found myself thinking about how ideas are formed and implemented during this wonderful/stressful/crazy revision part of FicFest. Ideas are just a mixture of the things I’m working out in my own life and what I ‘feed’ myself based on what I’ve read, but they become so close to our hearts. Unfortunately, we don’t really get to ‘own’ that part — not to mention the fact that the publishing process is going to rip my manuscript apart, anyway.

It’s easy to become enthralled and hyper-focused on your manuscript. And when you have an idea of what revising is going to look like in your head, and then it’s totally different, it can really put you off balance. Especially when you look at it all at once, like I said in my previous post.

However, the past few weeks I’ve taken my own advice, and carefully looked at each suggestion individually, and only one at a time, and made changes as I saw fit.

Honestly, I ended up implementing almost all of her suggestions. Because when looking at them individually and not letting my ego interfere, they made sense. And oftentimes I found that, bizarrely, when I made one change, it made her next suggestion divinely ‘fit.’

For example: It was suggested that I move a scene to earlier in the story. It was a simple move, not one that sent me down ‘ohmygodifImovethiswhatwillhappen’ street. In the scene, the magical version of the CIA approaches my MC with a job offer. Originally, I had it later in the story, alongside a bunch of other scenes to create a sense of ‘oh crap all these people know about the connection to xyz event she’s stuck now.’ Moving that scene made sense, not only because it made more sense for the CIA-like character (they approach her more covertly), but because it spiced up another section.

But because of it’s new placement, a new theme just magically fell into place: Blackmail.

All of sudden, from neither my mentor’s suggestion nor my own pre-planning, there was this new tension. The ‘job offer’ took on a life of it’s own and started changing the rest of my story, shifting character motivations, creating issues that were both good and bad. It changed a trust dynamic with two individuals completely.

At first I kinda freaked. ‘What? No! That’s not how I want my story to go! Crap! I’m going to have to take out the blackmail part and –‘ and, and, and.

Incidentally, as I was talking about above, this change magically fit into another suggestion by my mentor: I needed more tension in the second half. There wasn’t a direct obstacle to my character’s goals.

Originally, that’s kind of what I wanted. Look my character is finally succeeding with this thing she’s been obstinately fighting for for half the book — WHAM, climax, look at this creepy bad guy you knew was coming but hoped wouldn’t, MWAHAHAHAH!

Weeeeell. Yes. But.

I stuck to my plan at the beginning of this thing, that I was going to try on everything my mentor said, and I could always change it back if it really wasn’t right. I continued on with this new ‘blackmail’ element and wrote it out for the rest of the book.

Oh look at all the new delicious tension that my MC has to deal with!

Probably manifesting my own opinion on the matter, my MC frantically ignores the whole thing. LALALLALA it doesn’t exist hahaha I’m so kidding myself. Then, in a moment of vulnerability, she screws up.

Cue ‘all is lost moment’ — (which my mentor also said needed to be a bit more punchy, so, HELLO, two things fixed with just one scene change, wtf?). MC thinks she’s lost what she’s been fighting for this whole thing. Evil bad dude comes out of nowhere to ruin the day (okay, week). I added in a bit threatening what she values most in the world — independence — and voila!

Much heavier all is lost moment.

Am I freaking out that my story has changed A LOT and is this still my story oh my god I had to change so much around I suck as a writer?

Abso-freaking-lutely!

I found myself struggling with my writing identity: I must suck at this, to have so much change.

Now reread what I just wrote up above with the scene change. What did I say? Oh yeah, the whole thing that followed was all my work. My mentor didn’t specifically suggest blackmailing my MC. She gave suggestions that, considering marketability and the structure that keeps readers interested, could improve my manuscript.

My original scene move (which I completely agreed needed to happen and I don’t know why I didn’t think of it myself) didn’t leave me nervously not knowing the balance between keeping true to oneself and taking good advice.

Everything that followed, followed naturally. I wrote it. Did it fit into a whole bunch of her other suggestions that I felt nervous about implementing? Magically, yes.

Was it because my mentor said so, or because it just ‘fit’? Does this mean that there’s just a divine formula for book structure that happens naturally? Was I influenced by my mentors suggestions when I was rewriting?

Does it matter? The real question is: Is this still my story?

You bet your cute butt!

So my advice to you is this: Own those revisions! No matter the source. They are yours. And if they don’t feel like it, make them your own.

Do you have any crazy revising stories to share? What writer-y lesson have you stumbled across lately? 


Rambling Advice on Editing: #FicFest Update

I have zero desire to write this blog post, but I’m doing it anyway. I skipped/missed last week’s post, somewhere between laziness, picking up my (almost) mother-in-law for her month long stay, and furiously editing my manuscript for FicFest. So as I write this week’s, and I figure as long as I keep rambling, something will come out.

That’s what they say about writing habits every day, right? Just start writing anything, and the flow will come.

But anyway. Let’s talk about FicFest updates.

I received my edit letter almost a week ago… wow, has it been only a week? Yikes. It feels like it’s been longer. Anyway, I got the edit letter, and it’s been a little bit like having free access to crack ever since. It’s impossible to pull away. I’m definitely editing on the sly at work. I’ll find myself reading over her edits and making changes for hours and don’t even remember how I got there. It helps that she’s so freaking smart and spot on about everything.

I’ve run into my first problem, however: knowing the difference between a good change that improves my craft and story, and knowing when a change will alter the ‘heart’ of my story too much. I think it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of comments by a mentor, an editor, a beta reader — whatever you’re happening to read over in that moment.

I don’t really know the answer to this yet, but I have gotten some great tips from writer friends and family.

My first piece of advice, coming directly from me, is this:

Read through all the advice and suggestions. Then, take a step back. Take each edit one at a time, and only that one at a time. Take the one suggestion and work only on that until it’s done (and maybe give yourself a time limit if you’re a super-perfectionist). Don’t try to do everything at once as you’re moving through your manuscript.

 

I started with finishing the line edits, and have just moved onto the overall suggestions; right now I’m working on making my setting more vivid (and ONLY on the setting). Once that’s done, I’m moving onto making a particular character from the past have a little more influence on the future, to not be quite so shrouded. Then I’ll be working on this one character quirk that needs to be further explained.

Do you see what I mean? Focusing on one aspect makes it a lot easier to digest and implement. I’m finding I’m not nearly so overwhelmed, and I can see each comment more clearly as what it is: advice, and intelligent suggestion.

Another piece of advice that really rung true for me was this:

Take each suggestion at face value (again: only one at a time) and look at it through the lens of what story YOU are trying to tell (you’ve probably heard this advice a hundred times, but for some reason this really hit me as helpful).

Be open to all suggestions and improvements. Consider everything carefully, after a few days to digest the comments you’ve received. Come at your story after a deep breath and a step back. Determine what kind of story comes across to the reader, and if it’s the story YOU want to tell. Some suggestions may change the story to feel like something else, or the characters to be like other people. It could be good. It could be great. Or it may change something too much.

Don’t cut off your nose in spite of your face, but keep true to the story you are trying to tell.

 

Does anyone else struggle with finding this balance? What’s your method to work it out? How about my FicFest friends, how are you all doing?


Results of the “Trope Outline”

If you read my Tropes Outline post, you know that I’ve been working on an outline that follows the main tropes of my story. There was a bit of delay in my posting about the results of it, mostly because Camp NaNoWriMo hit and now I’m focused on writing the thing the outline is for vs. the outline itself.

And now I’ve finished writing the thing I wrote the outline for. I don’t really think I got the lesson that was supposed to come out of writing the outline… because I’m looking at the tropes I put to the outline and they don’t seem to be showing up overwhelmingly in the story.

Okay, let me back up.

Writing this thing, I basically did this:

Here’s a scene. What trope best fits it? * research research TV tropes research* Ah, that seems best. Plunk, there it is, right in there. I did it for every major scene, for each character, and occasionally two character’s interactions if they were important to the story.

It’s all very nifty looking and cool at the end. But I didn’t necessarily use it while writing it.

And, as my partner pointed out when he asked some questions, I also didn’t do a before and after trope: or where I started and where I want it to end.

Would that have helped? I don’t know. I also don’t have much practice following an outline (versus having the story flow out in my head and then I write it down just for reference if I can’t remember what happens next), so I probably didn’t utilize the thing as much as I should have.

Writing the outline did help me focus, but I did my usual stunt of getting really excited about writing and mostly forgetting I had an outline and just going with it.

On the other hand, this is just a first draft. And I deliberately let myself go and pushed away my inner editor in an attempt to get it all out. I’m wondering if the trope outline may be more helpful in the editing phase, when I really start honing down what this thing I’ve created is actually doing.

Also, on a different subject, the novella is 2k more than the word count limit for the contest I’d like to enter. So I need to be cuttin’ some words… or enter it in an alternate magazine I’ve found. Or do both. (Which I actually think isn’t nice so I probably won’t do that).

If nothing else, this experiment is making me think about things in different ways. My brain is already trying to apply this exercise to my 117k manuscript. Even though it’s technically completed, I think it would be really good for me to delve into the core themes from this perspective. If nothing else, for another hone down session.

Editing is a never-ending process anyway, and who knows — maybe I’ll see an element I didn’t even realize, that I can use in my query. Highlighting common tropes can point out similar books (or movies) that you can use for queries (to do the X meets Y kind of query). Or, it can at least show another way to quickly sum up your manuscript, highlighting the common thread and the twist you’ve added that makes it new and refreshing (and thus efficiently and elegantly showing why it is desirable).

So what do you think? Have you had any adventures with tropes recently? Or a writing experiment in general?


On Short Stories

I’m feeling the need to branch out beyond writing my epically long novels. Not leaving them behind, of course, but broadening my horizons. This isn’t an uncommon thought for me; I usually realize this about every 18 months.

It’s excellent practice. For one, it teaches you how to fit as much as possible in as little as possible, which should be happening in novel writing anyway. And it can help refresh your creativity and brain after being so hyper-focused on one storyline and set of characters. And all of this without committing to another epically long novel!

Besides that, it’s a good idea if you’re interested in traditionally publishing. An agent will like it if you’ve got several short story publications under your belt. And you’ve got to write the short stories for that to happen.

I have no shortage of ideas, but I find it difficult to make them… short. I need the practice.

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illustrated by Pyon Dattebayo

Maybe I’ll start with Novellas.


“Tropes Outline”? – Look at this fun thing I’m doing

When I write, it tends to be pretty wild and unstructured. I get an idea in my head, accompanied by a really vivid scene or two, add in a cool concept I’ve been distilling – and I’m off. Creativity goes wild, accompanied by some restructuring and outlining as I move along.

(Until I hit about the 2/3 point, but we won’t talk about that.)

This is totally unlike my partner in crime. He starts almost completely from the point of view of theme and trope – meddling with concept and outline until he likes it – and isn’t driven by weird insanity-muse-moments. Our conversations get pretty interesting when it comes to writing. From my point of view, it’s pretty great to have someone who writes so differently; I can learn a lot.

The other evening, in between bellyaching rejections and new stories and how to improve myself as a writer and this new Novella idea I want to do for a competition coming up, I found myself given an assignment.

Now, we’ve been trying to give each other assignments for a few weeks now. Me, in an effort to get him to write more; him, in an effort to push my boundaries and improve. We haven’t quite pulled it off yet, what with the water line exploding somewhere on the property (cue lots of digging) and barn cleaning out and life. I know, excuses, excuses.

So, since I am such a write-by-the-seat-of-my-pants person, my partner gave me a scary assignment for all pantsers: An Outline.

Not just any outline though. One that involves digging through tropes, and forming an outline based on themes, character archetypes, and overall concept.

And if you don’t know what a trope is, here are the basics: a common plot device. These often turn into cliches if they’re used enough. For example: The Epic Quest (see Lord of the Rings). The Dark Lord (Sauron from LOTR, and Voldemort from Harry Potter, etc). The Beauty and the Beast (it’s both a classic story and a trope).

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A few Romance tropes

Those ones are pretty broad, but tropes can be both broad and specific. For example, in Revenge, we have: You Killed my Father (revenge on the person who killed the hero’s parent), Feuding Families (families trying to kill each other – see every mafia-related show ever), Gaia’s Revenge (The earth has enough of humanity and tries to kill us – see The Day After Tomorrow), and etc etc.

As my father likes to remind me, there is nothing new under the sun, in regards to tropes anyway. But it’s the combination of different tropes in new orders or with new twists that create something new and refreshing.

So my assignment is both an attempt to make me pay attention to tropes in fiction (you can’t break the rules until you know them!), and practice in knowing how to create a story with a focused, specific goal in mind.

At first I was like… yikes. But then I started googling my writer-butt off and found out that a) TV Tropes is my best friend, and b) this is actually a lot of fun. Thinking of how to combine things in different ways makes all sorts of story ideas.

So, I’m applying this assignment to a novella for a writing competition I’ve got my eye on. It’s a speculative-fiction contest, and I figure this is an excellent project to try this out: I’m looking to stay on the literary side of things, so this should help me stay on track on what I’m really saying.

I haven’t finished the assignment as this is the busy week from down under apparently. But I really want to am going to kick my butt into gear this weekend…

… somewhere around the several farm projects and my internship event.

Ha.

Must. Schedule. Writing time. 

I’ll let you guys know how this whole trope outline goes. I’m rather excited to see how it turns out.

What about you all — have you ever written a “trope outline”? Have you engaged in traded assignments with friends and loved ones? Any advice on navigating busy weeks and writing time (isn’t that the real question, ha!)?