Category Archives: On Writing

Posts related to the writing process.

The Joy and Fun of the Shared Fictional Universe

With Ant-Man coming out today, the time seemed right to make the Marvel Cinematic Universe the inspiration for a blog post. Because I have to say, I am a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – which is somewhat ironic, because I’m not really much of a fan of Marvel Comics any more (I’ve been much more of a DC Comics guy for a very long time now – if only their movies were better!). But even more than the individual movies and TV shows, I am a huge fan of the concept of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The idea of all these separate films and shows, each with their own main characters and their own creative teams, but all coexisting within the same fictional universe, is pretty damned cool.

But the MCU is far from the only shared fictional universe out there, and that’s really what I wanted to cover in this week’s blog post – specifically those shared universes found within the context of novels and/or short story collections. Because I believe that novels and shorts stories can be fantastic media for a shared universe, even more so than movies & TV – and certainly more so than comic books, which sadly suffer from the sheer number of comics that are published each and every month.

Easily one of, if not the most famous of all the fictional shared universes would have to be the Star Wars Expanded Universe – or Star Wars Legends, as Disney has chosen to rebrand it. While I have read very little of these works (as I must confess I’m not a huge Star Wars fan), the scope of it is incredibly impressive. It features books, comics, roleplaying and video games, and more. And from what I have read online, it has also done a very good job of maintaining a consistent continuity, which is a significant achievement considering the amount of material it includes.

Around the same time the earliest Star Wars novels were being published, another fictional shared universe came into being, one of my personal favorites – Thieves’ World. What started as a series of short story anthologies would eventually add novels, comics, and roleplaying games as well. One of the distinct differences between Thieves’ World and Star Wars is that instead of a single author’s universe being expanded on by numerous unconnected other writers, with the informal understanding that new stories would not contradict previously established continuity (as was the case with Star Wars), Thieves’ World started out as an intentionally designed shared world.

Writer Robert Asprin was at a convention, and during a discussion with a couple of other writers, he voiced one of his main complaints about writing epic fantasy – that despite how many incredible, well-crafted, already known fantasy worlds were out there, every new writer was expected to develop their own, brand new world from scratch. He further suggested that wouldn’t it be great if all of our favorite fantasy characters shared one world, and could pop in and out of each other’s stories.

And thus was the idea for Thieves’ World born. Asprin contacted several other writers, and together they created the map, history, government, religion, and other details for the city of Sanctuary. Then each writer would produce a character write-up for their main character. This would be shared with all the other writers. Each writer was allowed to feature the other writers’ characters in their own stories, the only caveat being they were not allowed to kill off or seriously alter another author’s character.

This idea of planned cooperation was a big part of what I loved about the series. Having characters show up in each other’s stories gives them a cohesiveness, a true feel of all taking place in the same world, that just makes them that much more fun to read. And ultimately I think this works best in a short story anthology format. The amount of time it takes to write a novel means that by the time you’re finished, you have no idea what another author might have done with their characters in their own novel. For example, in the first Thieves’ World collection, one author’s story features a cameo of another author’s character – but this character was killed off by his author during his own story. This was easily dealt with, however, by the editor simply making certain the story with his minor appearance came before the story where he was killed off. In larger, more complex works, this kind of issue becomes more problematic.

Going back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you run into a similar concern when it comes to tying your properties together/using each other’s characters/plotlines. The MCU currently features a series of movies, 2 shows on ABC, and a series of shows to be released on Netflix. The problem you run into is that not every fan of the movies is necessarily watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., or has a Netflix account (or has a Netflix account and for some inexplicable reason hasn’t watched Daredevil yet). How do you decide when and where to tie the various properties together without risking confusing those fans who aren’t watching all of the properties?

Personally I have no sympathy for anyone not watching everything Marvel-related, and would love to see a Daredevil cameo on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., or Agent May make an appearance in the next Captain America movie. But I also understand Marvel’s position – from a business point of view you have to accept that not all your movie fans are watching the TV shows, which means there are limits to how much and in what ways the movies can reference the TV shows. The same holds true between the ABC shows and the Netflix shows. But imagine how many cool things they could do if this wasn’t a concern.

This is where a short story shared universe becomes ideal. As an editor, you can fairly safely assume that anyone reading one story in an anthology will likely read them all, which gives your writers the freedom to have as much or as little interactivity between their stories as they see fit. In some cases there may need to be contact between writers to ensure a solid continuity, but this becomes much easier in the context of short story writing because of the much faster turnaround time for a short story versus a novel (or a television show or movie).

So what do you think, dear readers? What is your favorite shared fictional universe? And would you want to write a story set in such a universe, given the opportunity? Sound off in the comments!

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A Great Story Is Just Like A Great Rock Song!

I was driving home from work the other day, rocking out to a great song and going over story ideas in my head (I’ve found that driving is a perfect time to brainstorm ideas), and it occurred to me how much the song I was listening to was like a great story. It then occurred to me that this could make an interesting topic for a blog post, and so here we are.

 

It all starts with the hook.

If you break down the elements of a great rock song, you’ll see many of the same elements that are required to tell a compelling story. It starts with a great hook. Many of my favorite songs start with a great intro that immediately pulls you into the song. My mind may be wandering so that I’m barely aware of what’s playing, but when that great song kicks off, I’m immediately listening, my attention now on the music.

A good story needs the same thing. Now I’ve read a number of articles that talk about the importance of the opening paragraph, even the opening sentence. And sure, if you’ve got a killer opening line for your story, fantastic. But I don’t believe that the hook has to happen that immediately. I can’t think of a single story that I stopped reading because I wasn’t completely caught up in the story by the end of the first paragraph.

With that being said, reader patience levels vary, so the sooner you hook them into the story, the better. The best way to do this (at least, from all the advice I’ve read on the subject) is to open your story with action. Start right in the middle of a scene, guns blazing and fists flying. You want to get the reader excited about what’s going on, then you can worry about explaining the who, where, when, and why of what’s going on.

How you do this is naturally going to vary widely between genres, and indeed from story to story. Your average romance, for example, isn’t likely to start with literal “guns blazing” (at least I wouldn’t think so, but I fully admit to having never attempted to write romance). But whatever your style of story, you need to find an opening that your readers will find exciting, that will immediately engage them in your narrative.

 

Make a powerful emotional connection

Most songs that I really love are ones that I connect with on an emotional level – the song can make me happy, sad, angry (depending on my mood at the time), as long as the song ignites my emotions – the more intensely the better. This is one of the reasons I love rock music – there is an emotional intensity, a raw power to a kick ass rock song that you just don’t get with a lot of other styles of music (even if you can’t dance to it).

I believe it was in one of Randy Ingermanson’s e-zine articles that I first read that all successful stories cause the reader to have a powerful emotional response. And I believe this to be true. The emotions involved may vary based on the genre of story, but to really enjoy a story you need to connect with it on an emotional level. It should have characters that we love (or love to hate), and a plot that excites, or scares, or amuses – or maybe all of the above.

 

You gotta love a great guitar riff

One of the common elements I’ve noticed with songs that stay in my head throughout the day, songs that I can listen to on repeat over and over again, is a great guitar riff that recurs throughout the song. Or it has a great baseline that plays through the song. This is often what keeps my attention on the song while I’m listening to it, and is what keeps the song stuck in my head after I’m done listening to it.

Great fiction also has riffs running through it. In comedy it’s the running gag. In a murder mystery (or good slasher film) it’s that steadily rising body count. In romance it’s the will they/won’t they back-and-forth before the couple finally find happiness in the end. Whatever the genre, every story has those beats. When done right, they’re one of the things that keep you engaged in the story. Of course, done wrong and they quickly become the reason you quit reading.

 

A strong finish makes you want to hear it again

When I get done listening to a great rock song, the first thing I want to down is listen to it again. If it’s one I really love, I can listen to it over and over on repeat. A great story should be the same way – you can read it over and over again and enjoy it just as much every time. I might not start re-reading a story immediately after finishing it (because let’s be honest, a story has much more of a time commitment to it than a song does), but I will go back to it again and again over time. The ending to your story should be like the triumphant final note of a great rock song – your reader feels that happy sense of closure that this journey you’ve taken them on has come to a satisfying end, which makes them want to enjoy the experience all over again.

What do you think, dear reader? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Why You Should Be On Scribophile

Posting a day early this week due to the 4th of July holiday weekend here in the States. For this week’s post I wanted to give a shout out to the one site that has probably done more than any other to help improve my writing. And that is the critiquing website Scribophile. I am sure there are many other critiquing sites out there, but this is the one I tried, and I couldn’t be happier. So if you’re not on Scribophile yet, what are you waiting for?

 

Initial Impressions

I was initially hesitant to sign up for Scribophile, not so much because I was concerned about people critiquing my work, but because I was nervous about critiquing other people’s work. And to ensure that everyone is doing their fair share, Scribophile requires that you critique other people’s work before you can get your own work critiqued. This is done through a “karma” system. You earn karma by writing critiques, which you can then spend to post your own work for others to critique.

I got off to a slow start on the site, again because I was a little nervous/uncertain about critiquing other people’s work. I mean, I’m still working to get confident with my own writing, so what possible input could I have on someone else’s? But the site has some solid documentation on the critiquing process and how to give a good critique. And once I read through my first story to critique, I realized that I did have valid input I could make about their story. As I’ve done more critiques, I’ve become more comfortable doing them, and more confident that I’m helping other writers to improve their craft (which is a great feeling, by the way).

More and more I really like Scribophile’s karma system. It eliminates those people who would simply post all of their own work for critique, without bothering to critique anyone else’s work, which I think makes for a more vibrant, active site. And realizing you’re helping other writers improve can be a very rewarding experience. I also think you can learn from critiquing others’ work just as you can learn from having your own works critiqued.

 

Nothing But Positive Experiences

The things I’ve learned about my writing from the critiques I’ve received has been astounding. Sometimes it’s very simple suggestions/observations that can have a huge impact on your writing quality – for example, I learned that I had a very bad habit of using parentheses in my writing. This may be okay for a blog post or a newsletter, or other more casual writing, but as I learned, in the context of fiction it weakens your writing, and should absolutely be avoided. This was a bad habit I’d had for years without really realizing I was doing it, much less realizing it was a problem. But once it was pointed out to me, I went through my current stories and rewrote every sentence that had parentheses. And the improvement to my prose was noticeable.

As I’ve cleaned up/improved on the little, obvious weak areas of my writing, I have been able to move on the bigger, more complex areas of improvement. For me this includes a tendency to tell instead of show (that gravest of all writing sins). And the critiques I’ve gotten on Scribophile have really helped to show exactly where and how much I’m doing these things.

The main key that makes a critiquing site (or any good critiquing group you may be a part of) more useful than a writing course or book is that it is directly tied to your writing. A book can inform you to show don’t tell, to avoid adverbs or passive voice, to be wary of dialogue tags, or any of the many other valid suggestions that fill up books on writing. But what these books can’t do is tell you exactly where in your prose you’re making these mistakes, or offer suggestions on how to fix/improve them. Books can also instruct you on such concepts as character development or story structure, but they can’t tell you which of these areas your story is weak or strong in. A good critique can do all that.

I don’t know about other critique sites/groups, but with Scribophile I have had nothing but positive experiences with the critiques of my work. Everyone is very respectful, and very much there to help your writing improve. Even the harshest criticisms I have received have all been written to help me find the weak areas of my writing and make them stronger. I haven’t always agreed with everything every critique has said, but it always at least gives me something to think about.

 

Why Wouldn’t You Join?

I’ve known a few writers who were very resistant to the idea of joining a critiquing group, and it always makes me shake my head. I get that some people have a harder time dealing with criticism than others, even constructive criticism. I also know there are people out there who aren’t really looking for constructive criticism, they’re looking for validation. They want someone to tell them their writing is good, to make them feel better about themselves as writers.

To that first group, I say this – if you plan to publish, you’re going to face criticism of your work, whether you like it or not. And not only are the people on Scribophile going to be a lot more polite/respectful/constructive in their criticism than the average Amazon reviewer, but you’re receiving that criticism at a much more important phase of your writing, namely before it gets published. So your best bet is to suck it up and start accepting that criticism early in the process, so you can make your writing as strong as it can be before you go to publish.

To that second group, all I can say is get over yourself. If you just want someone to tell you what a good job you did (whether what you’ve written is good or not), then let your mom read it. I’m sure she’ll be more than happy to give you a feel-good response. But if you want to get serious as a writer (and especially if you dream of someday being a published author), then you need to accept that not every response to your writing is going to be positive, and that no matter how good you are, you can always get better. And most importantly, you need to accept that criticism of your work isn’t criticism of you, and that constructive criticism isn’t meant to tear you down, it’s meant to show you where you have room to improve. Reading a critical response to your writing from an unbiased third party is a great way to find those weak areas so that you can improve on them.

 

So if you’re a writer, and you’re not on Scribophile, I ask again, what are you waiting for? Please feel free to share your own Scribophile experience in the comments. Or if you use a different critiquing site, please share it! I’d love to know about other good sites out there.

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The 3 Types of Writer Resource Blogs

As I started to get serious with my writing, I spent more and more time online looking for resources to help me improve my craft, and to learn more about the complex process of becoming successful as a published author. Along the way I discovered numerous websites devoted to these subjects, and quite a few of them were blogs. Initially I jumped on any blog I came across – adding it to my favorites, signing up for their mailing list if they had one, and checking back frequently for new posts.

But as time went on, I naturally discovered that not all blogs are created equal. And it’s not just a matter of quality. The other key factor I noticed was the motivation behind the blog. Ultimately I decided that writer resource blogs fall into three broad categories – the well-meaning amateur, the professional blogger, and the true writers’ resource. The blogs in the final category are the ones most worth seeking out, but sadly they also seem to be the least common.

For this week’s blog post I wanted to discuss these three different categories. Please keep in mind that this strictly my own take on the blogosphere, and you are welcome to disagree with me. Also, because I get a little bit critical (especially with the first two categories), I’m not going to site any example blogs. I’m sure anyone reading this has likely spent enough time on other blogs to have their own examples – and their own opinions on this topic – and there are way too many blogs out there for me to pick on just the random few I’ve come across.

So here are my descriptions of the three general categories of writer resource blogs as I see them:

The Well-Meaning Amateur

Firstly, let me just state for the record that this is the category that I firmly put my own blog in. Because while I’d like to think that someone will gain some insight or enjoyment from reading my ramblings, I am all too aware that I am far from an expert. But that being said, I have also never presented my blog as offering advice or expert insight. It is simply a record of the writing process as I’ve experienced it. And hopefully anyone reading my blog doesn’t take it for more than that.

The problem I often run into with other blogs in this category, is that the blogger either doesn’t realize this is the category they’re in, or they choose to write the posts as if they were an expert, despite the fact that they’re really not. And I honestly don’t care how many novels you’ve published or how successful your writing career has been so far – that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the person to go to when it comes to helping other people move forward on their own writing journey. I’ve known plenty of people successful in their field who had no real talent for instructing/enlightening others.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against this sort of blog (it would be awfully hypocritical of me if I did, since I’m in this category too). I’ve read many well-written, interesting posts from these types of blogs. At the same time, however, I’ve also read posts that were on an interesting topic, but ultimately the blogger doesn’t say anything worthwhile that hasn’t already been said before. Or they’ll skim the surface of the topic, but not really delve deep into it, likely because they don’t have the knowledge/experience to be able to really delve into the topic.

So while I can enjoy these blogs (certainly more so than the next category), and would never discourage writers from following – or writing – this sort of blog, I have learned that once I identify a blog as belonging to this category, I adjust my expectations accordingly. They also get lowered on my priority list over those blogs that I feel give more expert advice.

The Professional Blogger

These are the blogs I have the most problem with – the ones where the blogger generates an income, or even worse, makes their living, from their blog. And the problem I have is that even if they provide worthwhile content, it always goes hand-in-hand with them trying to sell you something. And because they ultimately want to sell you their content (or their affiliate’s content that they get a referral fee on), they’re never going to really give you information you can fully utilize. Instead, they’re going to tease you with the high points of a useful article, then tell to buy their book to learn more.

The even more annoying trend that I’ve seen of late are the free webinars. “Sign up for a free webinar to learn all about <subject>!” (and I’ve seen these for a variety of topics). But then you sit through the webinar, and it’s 45 minutes going over the high points of the topic and telling you why the topic is important to you as a writer, and why you really need to know more about it. Then, of course, comes the sales pitch, and you spend the last 15 minutes of the webinar hearing about the special sale they’re having on their book that covers this very topic (or even worse, the course they want to charge you hundreds of dollars to attend that covers the topic).

Okay, I admit that it is very possible that what they’re selling is worth every penny they’re charging for it, but my budget is tight as it is without dropping money into books and courses that may or may not help to improve my writing skills or help me successfully publish my book (or market it, or develop my author website, or build my email list, or any of the many, many other areas that writers eventually needs to delve into when they reach that stage where they have a completed novel in their hands).

More importantly, like many people out there, I don’t like to be sold to. If I’d wanted to spend money to learn more about a topic, odds are I would have explored paid courses or gone to Amazon to look for books to buy on the topic. The reason I’m perusing blogs instead is that I’m looking for advice, insight, and information to help me along that isn’t going to cost me money. And when you setup a blog that promotes itself as being all about helping authors, but is really just about you trying to sell your advice/products – or those of your affiliates – I start to feel like I was looking for a library and somehow wandered onto a used car lot instead.

More and more I’m moving away from these sorts of blogs, because even when they do provide worthwhile information, or have free blog posts that truly do have value, there’s always that “buy my book” addendum attached to the end, which sours the experience for me. I get it – your blog and the products on it are how you earn your living. More power to you on that front. And for those readers who are okay with buying your books and paying for your courses, more power to them as well. I sincerely hope they get their money’s worth, and are able to improve whatever area it is your book/course covers. But that’s just not what I’m looking for when I go to a writing blog.

The True Writers’ Resource

These blogs are the gold standard. They are the blogs that combine the two key things that us aspiring writers are looking for. Firstly, a blogger with enough expertise/experience in the area they write about to truly be helpful, with in-depth, insightful blog posts worth reading (and sharing with other writers). And secondly, a blogger who isn’t using their blog as a primary source of income. Instead, their blog is a way for them to help other writers by providing them with insight and guidance about aspects of the writing/publishing/promoting process that the blogger has been through and has experience with.

One of the common traits I’ve noticed for this sort of blog is that the blogger is very often first and foremost a fiction writer. This means their income comes from their fiction, and not from their blog. Sure, there’s going to be links to their novels on their blog (as well there should be). But because these are not directly related to the advice they are offering, and they’re not trying to make money off their advice, there is no reason for them to restrict that advice, or only offer you a taste of it, in the hopes you’ll pay them for more. And the better ones make you aware of their fiction works without having to blatant “buy my book” feel when it comes to those works.

One day I would love for my blog to reach this level. If I gain enough skill/experience with my craft, or somehow manage to successfully publish a book or two and learn more of the ins and outs of making a book successful, I would love to share my experiences and my lessons learned with other writers. And not in the hopes of making money off my blog or selling a resource guide or how-to book, but simply so I can give back to the writing community in the same way that other authors have helped me. If along the way I convince a few of my blog readers to buy my novels, all the better, but I can’t imagine that being the only reason for maintaining my blog.

 

And so ends my rant for the week. What do you think? Can you see blogs that you follow fitting into one of the above categories? Am I being unfair in my assessments? Are there other categories that I hadn’t thought of? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

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Naming Your Characters

Last week I detailed the progression of my main character, from Dungeons & Dragons character to his current incarnation within my Work In Progress. One thing I did not mention last week (mostly because I was saving it for this week’s post) was the main character’s name. And that is because this week’s post is all about naming your characters – or more to the point, how I come up with names for my characters.

My main character is somewhat unique among all my characters in how I came up with his name. It started with the name of my D&D character, which is Idris, after the actor Idris Elba. I picked that name partly because I really like the actor, but mostly because it is just an uncommon, and in my opinion, very interesting sounding name. I also decided my character didn’t really need a last name, so Idris it was.

Once I decided that my D&D character would be the perfect inspiration for my story character, the first realization I came to was that I didn’t want to steal Idris Elba’s name for my story, so I changed Idris to Idrin. And he needed a last name, so I pulled the name ‘Avarus’ out of the back of my brain – it just sounded like a cool last name, and went well with Idrin. And thus Idrin Avarus was born. Of course, afterwards I looked up the word ‘avarus’ and it turns out that it is Latin for greedy or covetous (it is the Latin root for the word avaricious), but I figure I can live with that.

For my other character names, I use a more standardized, less random process. It starts with a wonderfully useful website – Kate Monk’s Onomastikon (an onomastikon is a dictionary of names). This site has hundreds and hundreds of names, categorized by region/ethnic group. So if you know what sort of people inspired your character’s people, you can go right to that group and find names that fit.

As an example, Idrin’s closest compatriot is a dwarf. In my story world, I based the dwarves on Viking raiders (except they are land-based raiders, and not the sea-born raiders that the Vikings were). Because of this, I wanted all dwarven names to be based on old Norse names. That is how I came up with Hallgrim Damsgaard, dwarven mercenary. The other character that I used this method for was my lizardman character. Being desert-dwelling beings, I wanted the lizardmen to have an Arabic feel to them. Going through a variety of Middle Eastern names, I put together Dhsan Johari Mohktar Eftekhari, lizardman scout and guide.

On the subject of lizardmen, I decided that I wanted to give them an actual race name other than “lizardmen” (which then became a derogatory term that other races called them, and not something they ever called themselves). And this leads me to my second source for character/place names, and that is Google translate. I absolutely love Google translate. Of course, it helps to be a bit obsessive/compulsive, as the way I use it is a fairly time-consuming – and very repetitive – process. But on the upside, it is a fantastic way to come up with exotic-sounding names that work really well in a fantasy setting.

The process is this – I bring up Google translate, then choose a word or phrase that fits the character or place I’m looking to name. Then, one language at a time, I go through and translate the word into every language that Google has, until I find a result that I like. Sometimes I’ll take the exact word, other times I’ll modify it slightly (or combine a couple of words) to get something that works for me. Again, you need to be either OCD or very, very patient, as often words won’t give you something that you like, so you’ll have to try a variety of words until you find what you’re looking for (and Google has quite a few languages to go through).

In the case of my lizardmen, the English word I ended up using was “shield” (I can’t remember any more why I chose that particular word, but I’m sure I had a reason at the time). And the translated word I came across was the Somali word “gaashaan”, which just had a reptilian-sounding feel to it. And thus my lizardmen became the gaashaan.

This is also how I came up with the name for my ratling thief/con-artist, Bajingan – which is a Javanese/Indonesian swear word that essentially means “bastard” or “scumbag”. A fitting name for an unsavory thief, I think, and one that quickly became one of my favorite character names.

This method also worked for developing a handful of simple phrases in the gaashaan language. I would translate the phrase I wanted into different languages until I got a handful of words/phrases that I liked. I would then make little tweaks and adjustments to them so they were no longer real words. My reasoning for this is that I didn’t want my made-up languages to be identical to an actual real-world language. Having a character’s name be a word in a real language is one thing, but the words my (non-human) characters speak needed to be at least partly made-up.

For the language of the goblyns, I had to go a little further afield. I wanted the goblyn language to have a very Gaelic/Celtic feel to it, specifically Scottish (because if you’ve ever seen Gaelic written down, it certainly looks like a non-human language). Sadly, however, Google translate does not have Scottish in its database, so I had to do a little Internet surfing, until I found a couple of sites that did English to Scottish translation.

As with the phrases I’d made up for my lizardmen, I didn’t want my goblyns to be speaking actual Scottish, just something with a similar look/sound to it, so instead of using exact Scottish words, I would combine and slightly alter words, which gave me a wholly made-up language, but one that had a distinct Gaelic feel to it, which was what I was looking for.

For me, creating words and phrases, and coming up with names for my characters is an incredible amount of fun. Now that being said, I’m not enough of a linguist to want to try and develop my own full conlang, but there’s something very rewarding in creating those little bits of fantasy language, and giving them a consistent sound that fits the race that is speaking them.

I would also say that finding the right names for your characters is the one of the most critical steps in creating a character. I don’t know about other writers, but I find that the moment I find the right name, I can immediately start to picture my character – who they are, how they think and act, what they look like. All of it is reflected in their name.

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Developing my Main Character

For the next several blog posts, I want to focus my discussion on the development of my current Work(s) in Progress. And what better place to start than with the progression of my main character, from initial conception to current incarnation. Along with the main character himself, this is a great opportunity to talk about the nature and tone of the stories, specifically as they relate to, and are affected by, the nature of the main character.

It’s interesting to watch a character change and grow as you develop your story – almost like a child growing up and figuring out who they really are. My main character started with the character I’m currently playing in my weekly Dungeons & Dragons game. For those who know 4th Edition D&D, my character is a two-sword style ranger with a cross-class feat that gives me the thieving skills of a rogue (if you’re not into D&D, I realize this probably doesn’t mean much).

My concept for the character is that he is a bounty hunter (which works well with his combination of ranger and thief skills). But the big twist to the character is his race – he is a Shade. In D&D, a Shade is a human who, through a complex and very dangerous mystical ritual, gave up part of their soul to the Shadow Realm, in exchange for dark powers from this realm (mostly related to stealth).

The final background theme I gave my character is one called Haunted Blade – essentially, having committed a cold-blooded, violent act with a bladed weapon (in my character’s case, a pair of scimitars), the character becomes cursed with the dark power of fear. When combined together, these various aspects make for a very fun character to play – dark, mysterious, an anti-hero the other players are never certain just how far they can trust.

So when my first attempt at a novel stumbled to a creative halt and I came to the conclusion that I needed to start fresh, I immediately latched onto my D&D character as a great place to start. Of course, the first thing I would need to do is make him a little less blatantly Dungeons & Dragons (partly because I didn’t want my story to feel like an obvious D&D rip-off, and partly because you never know just what game elements Wizards of the Coast might want to enforce their copyright on).

So the first thing to go was my character being a Shade – that specifically felt very D&D (at least to me). I did, however, want to keep the Haunted Blade concept. And so I made the cursed swords a very big part of his back story. And of course I kept him as the dark, mysterious bounty hunter. With this basic character concept in place, the next step was to decide what sort of story to feature him in.

I started by thinking about bounty hunters in general, and what sort of fiction you generally find them in, and two obvious sources came to mind – Westerns, and Star Wars. Star Wars, of course, was immediately out (not that I have anything against Star Wars, but firstly I wasn’t interested in writing fan fiction, and secondly I was more looking at a fantasy setting than a scifi one). Which left Westerns, and this very much intrigued me. What if I were to develop the story – the plot, the tone, the characters, all of it – as if I were writing a western, but set it in an ancient fantasy world?

And so that’s where I started. At first the ideas were coming together really well, and I was very happy with the direction of the story. Then I hit a snag. The problem I was facing was in the nature of the curse my main character suffered from. I don’t want to reveal too many details here (want to save those for the actual story), but essentially as a result of his curse, my main character does not draw his swords unless he absolutely has to.

The problem with this is that Westerns, as a rule, feature quite a bit of combat. And when your main character avoids combat whenever he can, that tends to complicate the story (and not in a good way). Also, as I plan to (hopefully) make my story part of a series of stories, the idea of a bounty hunter character was starting to feel limited – too many of the story ideas I had didn’t really strictly fit with the role of a bounty hunter, and I didn’t want every story to be about him chasing down his latest bounty. And so changes needed to be made.

The first change was to my character himself. Instead of a bounty hunter, he became an “adventurer for hire”. I felt this opened up the possibilities for jobs/adventures that he could become involved in, but still included the possibility of bounty hunting type missions, which meant I could do everything with him I’d planned out already, but now had more latitude to do much more besides.

The next change that I made was to the theme/concept of the story. Instead of being inspired by Westerns (although there will likely still be some influences from the Western genre), I decided that swashbuckling, action/adventure themed stories would work better with the character (think of stories featuring characters such as Allan Quatermain, Tarzan, or Indiana Jones, for example). The idea is to focus on scenes of action and adrenaline that don’t necessarily feature combat. This way, when my main character does draw his swords, it is only for significant moments in the story when he was little other choice.

Now I fully admit this is probably a bit of a risky choice, as it seems like a large number of fantasy stories really focus on battles and combat and monster killing, so writing fantasy stories that tend to minimize these things could potentially not go over well with fantasy readers. But if nothing else, I’ll be able to say I’m writing something different. I guess only time will tell if that ends up being different good, or different bad.

And there you have it – the transition of my Shade ranger D&D character to the cursed action/adventure hero who is the main character of my future novel series. Hopefully this little discussion gave you some insight into how a character can change and grow as you develop him or her, and how a story changes as the characters who inhabit that story change. Tune in next week, when I’ll be talking about some of the other characters who inhabit my stories (and more specifically, the fun-filled process of coming up with names for my characters).

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Ryan Crown, Year One

Greetings, and welcome to my first blog post for 2015! As I am currently fighting the flu, I decided to forsake originality in choosing this week’s post topic, and go with the old standby for this time of year – the year in review (followed by a look to the year ahead).

This does feel like an appropriate topic, however, as this marks the end of the first year in my epic (and possibly foolhardy) quest to become a published novelist. My quest truly began back in July, when I was first inspired by a friend of mine, who was in the process of finishing her first novel, to finally step up and give it a go myself.

The six months that followed were intense, exciting, scary, and above all, enlightening. There were ups, and there were certainly downs. My first attempt at a novel came to a screeching halt when I hit a creative wall, realizing I had a great concept for a story, but no earthly idea how to proceed in turning that story into an actual novel. And so I took a step back, and dove head first into research.

Now I must admit that at this point, I kind of put the cart before the horse in a pretty big way, because I found myself focused much more on the publishing/marketing/platform-building side of things than on the writing craft side. I read all sorts of articles and followed all kinds of blogs talking about how to be successfully published. Which is all well and good if you’ve got a novel mostly ready to go, but I didn’t even have the beginnings of a novel at that point.

On the plus side of all this research, I was able to setup my own author website, and start on this blog. And despite some initial misgivings (mainly because I’ve attempted to maintain a blog in the past, with limited success), so far I have really been enjoying writing on this blog, and hope to continue to do so.

I also forced myself onto social media, setting up author pages on Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, YouTube, and Twitter. And as of this writing I have 430 followers on Twitter! I realize that in the grand scheme of things this is a miniscule number, but for someone who is fairly non-social (and very non-social media) this is a significant accomplishment for me.

The down side of all of this author platform building is that it can be more than a little bit of a distraction from the main goal of this grand experiment, which is actually writing a novel. It would a terrible shame if I put all this effort into my author platform, then never got around to getting anything published.

The writing process itself has been a very eye-opening one. More than anything, I have discovered that 20+ years of casual/hobby writing, and more importantly strictly writing short stories, really does not prepare you for the much more monumental task of constructing a novel.

After the failure of my first attempt, I decided to take a more structured approach to my second. I put together a full outline and chapter list before I started writing, I did a significant amount of world-building, creating the history of the world and its societies, even making a map of the known world (which, to my surprise, proved to be an incredibly useful tool when it came to working out some of the specifics of my story).

With everything in place, I waited for November 1st to begin my novel, wanting to tackle NaNoWriMo. That proved to be quite the learning experience. Mostly I learned that I am not really NaNo material, and will likely not be doing NaNoWriMo again in the future. But while I didn’t even make it to the halfway mark of NaNo’s 50,000 word goal, I did manage over 23,000 words for my novel, which for me was a pretty big deal.

The down side, though, was that many of the chapters I’d outlined ended up being combined (as I discovered that too many of my chapter ideas did not have enough meat on their bones to make up a full chapter). I also realized that what I’d outlined was much closer to being a novella than a full-length novel. Even more importantly, I realized that the idea I’d come up with would work much better as the second novel in the series I had in mind, which meant that I needed to come up with a new idea for the first novel in the series.

Reached probably my lowest point (as far as motivation and self-esteem as a writer goes) in December. Post-NaNo I had to take a hard look at myself and my writing. The realization I came to is that I’m not nearly as ready to tackle writing a full novel as I thought I was. As much as anything, I hadn’t really understood just what went into writing a novel. When your background is short stories and film, you don’t realize just how complex a novel, even a short novel, really is (as a huge movie buff, much of the inspiration for my writing comes from films, but if you look at the narrative structure of a movie, it is very much a short story).

I will admit there was a moment when the idea of just giving it up as a lost cause did cross my mind. But I just as quickly squashed that thought, and reaffirmed my desire to pursue becoming a novelist. I did, however, readjust my expectations quite a bit. I know now that I have a very long road ahead of me, with a lot of learning still to do. And so I adjusted my plans for 2015 with this knowledge forefront in my mind.

The first decision I made is that I need to put my current story on hold temporarily, and shift my focus to book one in my series. The main reason for this is that too much of the current story relies on things that will take place in the first story, and only having the vaguest ideas for that story right now is going to hamper book two if I keep trying to push forward with it.

So it’s back to the drawing board with a new story – an appropriate way to start off the new year, I think. And this time, I’m going to approach the outlining/development stage of the novel much differently. I want to make sure that this time around my outline works for a novel, and not just a short story/novella.

The other thing I’m going to continue working on is the world-building for my novel series. Now that I have my map complete, it’s time to revamp and expand the history of the world and its peoples. I have to admit, for me this is almost more fun that working on the actual novel, because I truly love world-building. The trick, of course, is not to let myself get so caught up in world-building that I stop working on my story.

My final goal for 2015 is to actively move forward with the story series that I plan to publish to my blog (hopefully as a regular weekly feature). I have to basic concept for the series, and a working title – “The Fantastical Adventures of Simon Farthing.” I’m getting more and more excited about this series, and with any luck will be ready to start publishing chapters in the next couple of months. Stay tuned for further updates!

And with that I conclude my first official blog post of 2015. I hope everyone has enjoyed what I’ve written so far, and I’d love it if you joined my e-mail list – you’ll always be in the know when my latest entry has been posted. And feel free to follow me on Google+ and Twitter!

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A Musical Interlude (AKA Does Your Novel Have a Soundtrack?)

Last week I discussed visual aids as a source of inspiration for my writing, so this week I wanted to talk about that other key sensory input – audio. Let me start by saying that I am passionate about music, all sorts of music. I can go from bluegrass to Scandinavian folk metal to electro swing to classical and back around, through many, many other genres besides. Nothing inspires me like music, and nothing focuses me when I’m writing like music. I put my headphones in, tune everything else out, and just focus.

Now seemingly I’m in the minority in this. I’ve read that many writers prefer silence, and find music to be a distraction. I’m the exact opposite. I find silence to be distracting, almost annoying. Just in general I need background noise – if I’m not listening to music, then I’ve got the TV going (I generally don’t have the TV going when I write, because it can be a distraction, but when it comes to doing stuff around the house, working on my computer, etc., I almost always have the TV on, even if I’m not really watching it, simply because I don’t like quiet). I guess I’m just crazy that way.

As well as helping me tune out distractions when I write, my other key motivator is that the right music puts me in the right frame of mind for the tone of my story. For me, music is all about emotion. It’s not so much about the lyrics or the tune, it’s about the emotional state that the music puts me in. This is one reason I very much enjoy music from all around the world – it doesn’t matter to me if the singer is singing in a language I don’t speak, what matters is how the music makes me feel.

When it comes to my writing, one of the first things I almost always do when I’m outlining/developing a new story is to put together a playlist that serves as the ‘soundtrack’ to my story. Part of this stems, I think, from the fact that I’m a huge movie buff. What does this have to do with music, you ask? Well, because of my love of movies, when I’m writing a scene I often visualize it as if it were a scene in a movie. And I realized that – just like in the movies – the right song playing in the background can make all the difference in setting the mood of the scene.

This is how the idea of a soundtrack for my novels came about. When I start developing the story, I put together a collection of songs that either have the right feel for the type of story I’m writing, or that when I listen to them I can almost picture a scene from my story. I also like to have a theme song for each significant character in my story – a song that captures the personality of that character, that makes me immediately think of them when I listen to it. Taking all of these songs, I build a playlist, then I try to listen to it while I’m writing. I’ve found that it not only improves my output, but it makes the writing process that much more of an enjoyable experience.

So am I alone in this? I know that I once talked with a writer friend of mine about creating a soundtrack to my stories, and she looked at me like I was crazy. If you do listen to music while you write, what sort of music do you prefer? To finish things, I’ve put together a YouTube playlist featuring many of the songs on the soundtrack to my current WIP. Give it a listen!

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Visual Aids And Writing

It’s the first week of a new month, and with NaNo now fully in the rearview, it’s time to shift gears and move on to new topics. But somehow I managed to let the week get away from me, and here it is Friday already, and I have no idea what I want to write for this week’s post. As I’m staring at a blank page trying to decide what to write about, I realize just how spoiled I was having NaNo as a preset topic every week. Oh, I’ve got a (somewhat short) list of topics to choose from, ones I came up with during November and jotted down to save for later, but it turns out that having your topic and deciding what you really want to say about that topic are two different things. Ah, the joys of writer’s block.

Of course, plenty of people will tell you that writer’s block is a poor excuse for not writing, so let’s see if I can power through this thing. Today I am going to write about the importance of visual aids as a writer. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and sometimes I think having that picture is just what a writer needs to get those thousand words written. So I want to talk visual inspirations in general, and then detail a specific example that recently proved essential to moving my current story forward.

I’m going to start my discussion of visual aids with a site that I have embraced as a rich source of inspiration – Pinterest (a social media site I initially expected to be as much of a pointless time waster as I find most social media sites to be). A friend had been trying (unsuccessfully) for a while to get me onto Pinterest, but she mainly used it for crafts and cooking/baking ideas, which didn’t really interest me at all. And so I ignored her repeated comments about what a great site it was to spend time on.

A while later I came across a writer on Scribophile who had a link to her Pinterest account, which got me curious (especially since my friend was still regularly telling me I should be on the site). So I took a look at this writer’s Pinterest page, just to see what a writer might do with the site, and found a number of boards all dedicated to story inspiration, and broken down into different categories.

Perusing these boards was all I needed to convince me of the usefulness of Pinterest. From there I setup my own page, and started 4 boards – fantasy characters, fantasy landscapes, sci-fi characters, and alien worlds. For the moment I’m mainly just having fun collecting cool images that catch my eye (especially on the sci-fi boards, since I’m much more focused on fantasy for my writing at the moment). But as I add images to my boards (and potentially expand them into more specific categories) and as I continue my writing, I can see more and more turning to those images for inspiration.

But visual aids can provide more than just simple inspiration – they can also give you the concrete details you need to flesh out your story or to help move your story forward. There’s one specific example of this that I wanted to touch on in relation to my current WIP. For the section of the story I’m just finishing up (which was originally planned as one chapter but has expanded to a full three chapters at this point), I had put one of my main characters into prison, and need to devise an exciting – but at least somewhat believable – prison break to get him out. And so began my research into prisons and famous prison breaks.

I’m not going to go into the details of all the research I did (going to save those for a future post on the joys and fun of research). Suffice it to say, after much researching I’d found the inspiration for my prison (Colditz Castle – a medieval castle that the Germans used as a POW camp during WWII). What I didn’t have, however, was any real idea of how my character was going to escape.

Colditz Castle - FloorplansI’d probably still be sitting here weeks later trying to wrap my head around this particular dilemma, if I hadn’t discovered one particular visual aid – a simple blueprint of Colditz Castle (shown at left). As I started looking over the blueprint, I started figuring out where the characters would be housed and what the potential weak points/points of escape from the castle might be. From there I started finding obstacles to those points that the character would need to overcome. The more I looked over the blueprint, the more the ideas came to me.

Now I won’t claim that what I ultimately came up with is necessarily the most exciting, original prison break ever written (and odds are I’ve got more than a little bit of editing/tweaking to do before I’m completely happy with how the prison break works), but I am very excited and happy with what I did come up with, and it never would have happened without that blueprint. And just as important, every time I adjusted and expanded upon my prison break, I could refer back to that blueprint to help me map out the where and the how of my escape.

So in closing, I’d just like to say that I love both the inspiration and the specific details that you can get from a good visual – be it painting, photograph, map, blueprint, or whatever else. Whether it’s characters or landscapes or creatures or specific locations/set pieces, the right picture can do amazing things to not just fire the imagination, but to also give you something concrete to aid in the little details of your writing.

And even if you don’t find that image that’s just what you’re looking for, let’s be honest, looking at pictures of interesting characters or fabulous landscapes is just a fun way to take a mental break from your writing. So has anyone else ever had this sort of experience – some visual aid that inspired a character, setting, or scene in your story? And where do you go when looking for visual inspiration? Let me know in the comments!

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NaNoWriMo 2014 – The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Quick word of warning – this week’s post starts off a bit on the negative side, as I vent my frustrations from the last few weeks, but it’s not all bad stuff, so please bear with me.

So National Novel Writing Month 2014 has come to a close at last, and I believe I shall be writing this thing off as something of a failed experiment. I say this not so much because I did not make it to the 50,000 word goal (my final word count, for the record, was 23,485), but more because the whole setup/concept of NaNoWriMo isn’t really conducive to writing for me. NaNo is all about “turn off your inner editor, ignore your delete key, and just write, write, write – you can worry about the quality of that writing in December,” and I just never clicked with that concept.

As I said in a previous post, I have learned that not only can I not turn off my inner editor, but I don’t want to. I enjoy editing as I go. The whole idea of being so focused on word count that in all likelihood large amounts of what I’ve written will end up just getting deleted during editing drives me crazy. It absolutely feels like a waste of time and creativity. Now I fully understand this is just me, and I would never discourage other writers from participating, since for many writers NaNoWriMo is a very good thing, a very motivating experience. Sadly, I am just not one of those people.

I think the biggest issue I have with it when all is said and done is that my obsessive/compulsive personality disorder really works against me. The first week and a half I was fine – I struggled a bit to maintain my word count, but I was always pretty close to where I needed to be. But then, on November 11th (Veteran’s Day in the US), I got busy doing other things, and ended up not getting any writing done. And blam! Just like that, I was close to 2000 words behind schedule.

Since I was already struggling to stay caught up, suddenly being over a full day behind killed me. The problem was, I couldn’t help but continuously look at my stats – my average daily word count, the average I needed to finish on time, and the date I was likely to hit 50,000 words (which kept getting later and later into December as the month went on). The further I got through the month, the more that 50,000 word goal felt like a weight pressing down on me. And the further behind on word count that I fell, the worse it got.

Ultimately this is what did me in. The further I fell behind, the more I stressed about it and obsessed over it, which made the actual writing less and less fun, which made me not want to write, which only exacerbated the problem. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, I was just ready for NaNoWriMo to be over and done. I tried not to let it stress me out, tried to tell myself, “Who cares about your word count, just keep writing,” but it didn’t really work (again, the joys of being obsessive/compulsive).

One thing I did like about NaNoWriMo is the idea of a constant daily word count. The problem, though, is that there is no reset – how much you write today directly affects every day after. This is fine if you’re pumping out 2000 or 3000 words a day, because you’re building up a daily buffer. But if you’re more of a 1000-1200 words per day person like myself, suddenly the opposite effect happens. Any time you are below the required daily average of 1667 or, heaven forbid, choose to take a day off from writing, that deficit gets added to the next day’s required total.

What I’m looking for is the more traditional daily word count, where the count resets every day. So, for example, if I set a goal of 1000 words per day, then that’s my goal every day. If I only manage 700 words one day, the next day’s goal isn’t suddenly 1300, it’s still 1000. Have a great day and crank 2500 words? Wonderful, but tomorrow’s word count goal is still 1000. So that is my goal moving forward – to write at least 1000 words per day, six days a week.

Okay, so now that I’ve purged all that from my system, I certainly feel better! I do apologize for the mostly negative tone of the post (and hope that my readers have stuck with me through the post this far), but NaNoWriMo really did stress me out a lot over the last couple of weeks. But never fear, there were a few positives that came out of this month as well. For one, NaNoWriMo managed to reignite my enthusiasm for my blog! Going into November, I was struggling to keep motivated to write this every week, and struggling with ideas for what to write about. What a difference a month can make!

For starters, focusing on my NaNoWriMo progress gave me a single theme that carried me through the whole month. This meant that not only did I know what my topic would be every week, but as I thought up new topics, I could bank them for future posts (and I’ve got several future topics saved up). I also came across a wonderful article on DIY Author that specifically talks about blogging for fiction writers (which was wonderful to read, as 99% of articles out there about author blogging seem to be much more applicable to non-fiction authors), which gave me more inspiration on how to focus my blog.

So in future I think I’m going to take that article’s advice (specifically parts 1 & 2), and really focus my posts on the behind-the-scenes of my writing – what inspires me, what’s going on with my story, insight into plot/characters, things of that nature. I also do still want to develop a continuing weekly story that I publish to the blog (as well as to online story sites such as Wattpad and Tablo).

Which leaves the question, now that NaNoWriMo is over, where do I go next? For starters, I am going to continue moving forward with my novel – because I did manage to get over 20,000 words written, and they’re words I’m pretty happy with, so certainly not stopping now! And since I’m no longer worried about total word count, this is as good a time as any to pull out those first couple of chapters that I know are ultimately going into what will be my first novel. Then I can rework the beginning of this novel with the knowledge that it’s now the second book in the series.

The other thing I’ve put together that I’ve been sitting on during NaNo is a world-building to-do list. This is a list of all the tasks I want to complete to fully flesh out the background of the world where my stories take place, starting with finishing the map I’ve been working on (it’s amazing how much of an effect figuring out the geography of your world can have on your story – a topic I plan to discuss in a future blog post). From there I’m planning to write histories of several of the societies of the world, as well as a history of the port city that serves more or less as home base for my main characters. Not only do these aid me with my stories, but they have the potential to be used for future blog posts.

And that is it for today. Time to get back to my mapping software and continue forward with building the geography of my world.

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