Thursday, October 29, 2009

You Can Write A Novel -Review

With Nanowrimo fast approaching we've all been focusing on sketching out the core elements of our proposed novels, developing our plot, and generally just trying to figure out what to write. Everyone has their own system, from free-balling to notes on index cards. For those of you without a system, you may want to check out the You Can Write A Novel Kit from James V. Smith. This handy little box comes with a book detailing how to develop a book from conceptualization to ending and handy little sheets to help you develop major and minor characters, outline chapters, and develop scenes. The tear-sheets kind of remind me of Yatzee score cards but instead of keeping track of dice, you can hash out things like character background, relevance of a scene to the overall plot, and review chapters to make sure key revelations have been met.

The book itself is quite handy. The elements are logically delineated and information is presented so that it is both visually appealing and easy to understand and incorporate. I especially like the little chart that shows the Master Story Model. This model is good for those of you wanting to insure the right amount of action/peaks at the right places. The also make great guideposts that give your story some direction with room to evolve as characters start to muck around on their own (which mine always do).

The book closes with invaluable tips on revising to help you tighten up your novel and avoid dreadful mistakes. Each tip is itemized with easy to follow exercises so you can quickly read through and start utilizing them right away.

All-in-all, the kit is a great planning and revising tool for those looking to get a better handle on the cumbersome aspects of writing a novel. Once you get a feel for it, you can muddle with the forms and outlines to suit your personal tastes. It's not a sure fire way to develop a winning novel, but its the most compact, inclusive, and easy to use resource I have found as a new novelist. I hope it helps you out, too. Good luck with Nanowrimo!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Almost time for NaNo!

I'm putting together a framework for what I want to write, not that I'll stick to it, but I find I can't begin without an idea, a glimmer, of what's going on. I know one mystery writer (and I'm sure there are others), Valerie Wolzien, who writes the whole thing, knowing her killer will reveal him/herself by the end. He/she always does, and Valerie then goes back through the manuscript making sure clues are planted. More often than not, they're already, mysteriously, there, she says. (I think that's what she says. I'm paraphrasing what I heard in a panel at Malice Domestic a few years ago. Anyway, it's close.)

Not me, though. I have to know who my killer is. Although I had a second one crop up once. A nice complication!

No matter what you're writing, if not mysteries, you're still either a person who plots beforehand, or a seat-of-the-pants writer. None of us can figure out how the other half does it! I have written into the mist and come out okay, but it's too scary for me!

And, no matter if you're a plotter or a pantser, your story still has to have the structure a reader expects. Many resources can define it for you: SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder, a book about screen writing that has much in it for the novelist; THE WRITER'S JOURNEY by Christopher Vogler, a book that delves into classical forms, adapted for writers from THE HERO'S JOURNEY by Joseph Campbell; HOW TO PLOT YOUR NOVEL by Allison & Busby Writer's Guides (which I've had recommended to me but don't have--Christmas hint here!); and, lastly, a terrific book I'm about half way through, WRITING TO SELL by Scott Meredith.

Alexandra Sokoloff has been blogging on plot, especially geared for NaNoWriMo, too! Check out her excellent posts at She uses the Three Act structure used by many.

Or you can use the tried and true plotting method. Put your heroine up a tree; throw things at her; get her out of the tree. You are, of course, free to use a hero instead. Happy writing, all who are doing NaNo!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Self Editing for Fiction Writers

I'm sure by now that you have several writing reference books on your bookshelf. Some of my favorite are The Elements of Style and On Writing by Stephen King. From time to time I revisit these two books and find some tidbit or editing technique that I'd forgotten about.

Recently, a writer at a workshop I attended recommended Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. I got a copy of the book and found it very helpful. Believe it or not, not all writers were English majors, and some people may have been snoozing in class the day the professor taught about the mechanics of writing good dialogue. If you happen to fall into this category of writing, you may want to check this book out, too.

It covers basic info like showing versus telling or creating character points of view, but I felt like the best parts were on creating proportion in your scenes. The sections on writing dialogue were interesting, too and gave me a few things to think about. The book does contain writing prompts at the end of each chapter and examples for you to read in order to test your critiquing chops, as well.

Even though your bookshelf may be weighted down with reference material already, I would recommend that you consider adding one more. Self Editing for Fiction Writers can't be any heavier than those Writer's Market books I know you have sitting there!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


I'm excited about this weekend! Excited and scared. I'm participating in something very new. A web conference. I think e-conferences may have been done on a small scale, but this is the first of its kind that I know of. Poisoned Pen Press, an independent publisher of mysteries, is holding the event on Saturday the 24th. (see for lots of details)

They're doing at least some of it right, right out of the gate. The cost is $25 and you receive a voucher for $20 worth of books, so you're out a whopping net $5. Pretty nice!

What this con has that a regular one doesn't: ability to participate from anywhere you have computer access; affordability; recorded presentations that will be available for awhile after the con (not sure how long). I'm not sure if the panels will be recorded and available.

What this con doesn't have that a regular one does: a goodie bag with bookmarks and a mug or sippy cup; an afterhours bar for chatting with authors, agents, editors, and fans; opportunities for meeting random people in the hallways of the hotel.

What they both have: panels, presentations, interviews, pitch sessions, lots of authors, a green room (called coffee shop here) for chatting between events, goodies in the form of books.

Some of we participants are wading through the technology challenges, like Skype, Livestream, Blogtalk, Podbean. Okay, I still don't know what some of these are, but I don't need all of them for what I'm doing. I think I understand the ones I need. We'll see.

Anyone interested? I'm on a panel that meets at 4 PM Central Time (Hour 8 the way they're doing it), led by Kelli Stanley. Our topic is "Why We Love the Gumshoe" and the rest of the panel is dynamite: prolific short story writer, Stephen D. Rogers and novelist Ken Kuhlken.

Sign up and be part of history in the making!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What a character!

Sure, you may have a great plot idea, and you may even be a good writer, but if you have boring characters you will find your story falling flatter than my pancakes on Sunday morning. Yes, they're that bad.

Moving on..

The thing about well developed characters is that even when you run out of ideas, they'll start writing the story for you. They will create situations you never thought of, bring their own interesting dialogue, and add that all important dimension that creates a personal connection with the reader. How do you develop strong characters? Start with a character sketch. Not a physical description, but more of a personality sketch (though physical details are included). This can be a list of items, a short description, an index card of notes, but something that describes in as much detail as possible your character. When doing this ask yourself the following questions:

What is my character's greatest fear?
What is their favorite food, memory, band, color, song, activity?
Where did they grow up? What extracurricular activities did they participate in?
Who was their best friend? Why was that person their best friend?
What is their little quirk, favorite phrase, or nervous habit?

The more questions like this you can answer, the more depth your character will have. Even if you don't use all of this information in the story, it all helps develop an internal sense of who the character is and what motivates them.

The final thing to consider is what is the one thing your character would never say or do. Have it? Good. Now put them in a situation where they have to say or do that very thing. That's how your character evolves. That's what raises the stakes and makes it interesting. That's what people want in a story.

I know this seems like a lot of work, but trust me its worth it. I used to skip this step then wonder why my story would hit a brick wall half way through. Now I start with a character sketch every time and I do it for as many of the characters as I can. It's brought my stories to life, and its fun to create your own people then manipulate their lives to your liking. Ahhhh, power trip. If only it worked in other areas too.

Moving on...

So go out there and build your little brainchildren, develop interesting characters, analyze and dissect them and then put them back together. You'll see your writing become better for it. And yes, you can also enjoy the omnipotent thrill it brings.

BHAG--No, I'm not calling you names!

What is your BHAG?

What? You don’t know what that is? Geez. It’s only the most important thing you carry around with you as a writer. No, it’s not your laptop or the full manuscript tucked under your arm ready to be whipped out at a moment’s notice. A BHAG is what keeps a person motivated.

BHAG (pronounced BeeHag for those who don’t live in acronym world) stands for Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal. It’s that one big thing you are striving to achieve as a writer. It’s the “Climb every mountain and try not to fall off” goal that you’ve set for yourself in the not so distant future.

What? You don’t have a BHAG? And you call yourself a writer…

Seriously. Goal setting is important. As an educator, I’ve spent a great deal of my professional life setting goals for students, as well as, myself. Long term and short term goals give you something to work towards. One of the biggest problems fledgling writers struggle with is staying motivated and focused. Goal setting can help with that.

Now when I say goals, I’m not necessarily talking about landing an interview with Oprah. Sure, that would be great, but maybe setting a BHAG that is achievable in the next few weeks or months might be a little more satisfying. I like to set short term goals like finishing a short story by a certain deadline, writing a blog once a week (stop laughing at me, Doug McIntire), or having my second draft edited by Thanksgiving. This kind of BHAG keeps me on track.

I do set long term BHAGs, too. I admit that I harbor hopes of an interview with Oprah someday. And it would be nice to finally get that agent people are always saying we writers need. The quest for the perfect query letter still looms large in my life, too. And then there’s the long term goal of figuring out how the heck to write that damn one page synopsis…

So…what are you waiting for? Get off this blog right now and go set some BHAGs. But feel free to leave a comment first!

Good luck and happy goal setting!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Manuscript Contest

I just came across the manuscript contest from the DFW Writer's group. The prize is a 10 minute sit down with an agent. Details here:

Markets for short stories

This may be cheating, but I found this absolute wonderful post by Alan Rinzler, thanks to a tweet from Wordhustler. Basically, it espouses on the many opportunities out there for short story writers. Check it out:


Since I'm starting to plot a new novel, I thought I'd use this space to go over how I do it. (Partly so I'll get it all straight in my head--I seem to forget completely, every time, how to start a new project!)

First, I take advantage of a couple of excellent courses I've taken. Margie Lawson created a class especially for a group I belong to called Guppies (the Great UnPublished online chapter of Sisters in Crime) and I start my plotting with her excellent guidelines. She has inexpensive lecture packets of most of her courses available on her webpage, I can recommend them highly! I also use a course I took from Mary Buckham on synopsis writing. Her method of doing synopses finds all the plot holes! You can find Mary at, BTW.

But here's the part that's original to me, my timeline spreadsheet. (If it's not original, then I don't remember where I got it. Sheesh. If you want to take credit, go ahead.) When you're writing a mystery, it's important to know where everyone is all the time. The characters have a tendency to skulk about in the shadows, but I have to hunt them out--the writer has to know what they're up to!

It's a simple spreadsheet. Across the top, I label the columns with the names of the important characters, and sometimes a few unimportant ones I want to keep track of. Except for the first several columns. The very first column is a list of the events of the story, the scenes, the clues, the happenings. These define the rows. The second column, for my benefit, is the date and time of the event. I use the third column to put what thread this event is concerned with, a clue, a red herring, a suspect, and I sometimes color code them. Sometimes I put the chapter number in the fourth column, then the character columns start. The protagonist owns the fifth column, since she's in the majority of the scenes.

As the scenes unfold, I note, beside the scene and under the character, what their role is in the scene--what happens to them, or what they're thinking or feeling or planning. If one of them gets dead, I color the rest of that column a dark color, usually gray. Since the first murder is an important defining point in a mystery, I can tell at a glance if I'm before or after the killing. I can also tell at a glance when some minor character is getting too many scenes, or when a major player has been out of the picture too long.

I use another worksheet to keep track of how I've described the characters, making sure their eyes don't change color, or a short person doesn't suddenly become a six footer, but that can just as easily be done in a word processing program. It's just handy for me to have it all together.

That's it! My nifty spreadsheet. I have it open most of the time I'm writing so I can insert the action as it unfolds. If you've ever written fiction, I don't have to tell you that, no matter how carefully a plot is structured, it changes. One of my characters in the last novel jumped from minor to major character, changed his name three times, and told me, in no uncertain terms, that HE was the romantic interest. What could I do? I adjusted the chart.

If someone can use this to keep things straight, let me know!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Writing Exercise Prompts for the Week of October 11, 2009

I wrote recently that to be a writer, you have to write; everyday. Sometimes it’s easier to do a 20-minute writing exercise if you have something to write about. So I’ve added a series of writing prompts for this week. Now, this being the month of Halloween, and me being an author of speculative fiction, these have a bit of a horror theme to them.

Sunday, October 11th Write about a time you were scared. This shouldn’t be a life-threatening or traumatic event, but a time when you were fun-scared, like someone coming up behind you and popping a plastic bag to make you jump.

Monday, October 12th – Use this as a catalyst for your writing; “What are you chicken? I dare you to go inside.”

Tuesday, October 13th – What’s your favorite scary ride at the theme park? Maybe it’s your least favorite because it’s too scary, or it scared you too much when your rode it. Write about it.

Wednesday, October 14th – Remember a time when you were a kid watching a horror movie and couldn’t go to sleep that night.

Thursday, October 15th – Did you have a monster in your closet? Maybe it was under your bed, or in the basement. Or maybe it was a recurring nightmare. Write about it.

Friday, October 16th – What are you afraid of? Spiders? Snakes? Heights? Perhaps you’re claustrophobic. Can you write about it?

Saturday, October 17th – Write a ghost story. We’ve all heard them. It doesn’t matter if you’re retelling an old tell. Retell it in your own way with your own voice.

Here’s another idea for a bonus writing exercise this week. Take your laptop with you into a cemetery at dusk and write as it starts getting dark. See what your imagine dredges up. Or perhaps a long-forgotten memory.

One thing to remember about these writing exercises is that they are only practice. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. Maybe you start going in one direction and find your story moving in an entirely different direction. Just go with it. Remember, the goal here is to write.

I hope you enjoy these. Feel free to leave me a comment and let me know. And you never know, maybe one of these prompts will be a catalyst for a story you can submit to The Dunesteef October Scary Story Event or the Microhorror Halloween Story Contest. Good luck if it does.

I will post more of these next week. You can find The Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine at: You can find Microhorror at: And you can find me at

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Art of Revision Workshop by Carol Dawson part 2

Wow, what a great investment. I just returned from the second installment of the self-editing workshop taught by Carol Dawson. Our homework was to read the first few pages of 5 or more of our favorite books looking for the hook and to find what drew us as readers to keep reading the book in those first few passages. Then Ms. Dawson required us to rewrite our first 6 pages according to what we learned in the first workshop. We sent those to her and she edited them as a free-lance editor would to show us what to expect and to help us improve as writers.

This week she covered a lot about suspense giving us some great specific examples from our works. She also used her own writings and those of other famous authors. Mrs. Dawson also spoke a lot about structure. Below are a list of points from the notes I took during the class. Some of these are familiar to those who have been in the writing field for some length of time and others will seem like common sense. For those who are new to the whole scene (like me), they are essential to hear and understand.

1. Show don't tell.

2. Always provide name for every person you send to.

3. Always provide page numbers for every person you send to.

4. Make sure your metaphors are grounded in some form of objective reality, even if a fantasy reality.

5. Never introduce anything you aren't going to use.

6. Don't begin a story with too much abstract. It bogs the reader down. Don't begin with too much back-story, get into the story! Don't begin with too much philosophical musing. Do not use too much description anywhere!

7. “A single phrase does more for the reader than an entire paragraph.”

8. When in doubt, use dialog. We want to know about the effect of an object, not its description.

9. Don't use terms like “expensive” in a fantasy setting when we have no frame of reference for what that might mean to the people of that world.

10. Character is plot. The more subtle and deep your characters, the better your plot.

11. Suspense in all things therefore less is always more.

12. Never say anything twice. (I've heard this one several times in the past few months.)

13. Watch your modifiers (ly's especially – adverbs). Descriptions we think may make the impact stronger on the reader, actually has the opposite effect.

14. Put in what must be put in and leave out what does not need to be there.

15. Make sure one scene leads to another, even if totally different characters in totally different settings and circumstances.

16. Length of a chapter is not determined by page numbers, but content.

17. Learn the rhythm/cadence of your story. If you can't find it or don't know what it is, read your book aloud. If it still doesn't show, then you may need to rewrite some to give it one.

18. Keep in mind order of the story. Be consistent with point of view. Don't talk about things that a character can't know.

19. Form an overall structure whether linear, patchwork, media res/flashback, or whatever, but be consistent with whatever structure that you chose to use.

20. Organize your structure, don't just slap something down without a purpose or place.

21. If you have a character that says anything, make sure they say it in character.

22. If you have boring dialog, make sure the character doesn't say it.

Ms. Dawson ended by reading Elmore Leonard's “10 Rules of Writing” A MUST READ for any aspiring writer.

I'll be happy to expand on any of these.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The MicroHorror Halloween Story Contest

Speaking of October story contests, MicroHorror is also sponsoring one; The 2009 MicroHorror Halloween Story Contest. And there’s a twist. Your story must resonate in the past. It doesn’t have to necessarily “take place in the past,” but history must play a theme.

And MicroHorror is a flash market. In fact, story lengths are appropriately limited to 666 words or less. That’s right; write tight. But the good fellow over at MicroHorror is also offering prizes; undisclosed, covetous, tangible prizes. It is worthy of note that there is no limit to the number of submissions you can make before the October 31st (11:59pm Eastern Daylight Time) deadline, but you are only eligible to win one prize or prize package.

MicroHorror is an online magazine. You can find them at

You can find out more about the author of this article at

12 Step Program for Writers

Being a writer is a tough life to pursue. Inevitably you find yourself battling the “amicrazies” and questioning everything you are doing. We’ve all been there. Living in those moments when running away to Mexico and joining the circus seems like a more viable career choice, if you could just figure out how to shoot yourself out of a cannon without inflicting mortal injury.

Have no fear. I introduce to you a twelve step program to recovery for the aspiring writer. Follow all twelve steps and you will successfully overcome the “amicrazies” and find solace in the fact that you are not alone.

Step #1: Acceptance

First and foremost you must accept the fact that indeed you are crazy. You have to be to pursue a career as a writer. It’s how you get your ideas and what drives you to keep plugging along for that $5 token payment for ten hours worth of work.

Step #2: Say it out loud

Visit your local writer’s group and repeat after me “My name is (insert the name of your commonly accepted identity, real or implied, but otherwise held accountable for acts committed to paper). I am Crazy. I love to write and write I must.” Relish in the gratuitous round of applause that undoubtedly will follow.

Step #3: Say hi to caffeine

You’ve found a group who accepts you for the whacko you are. Now it’s time to ingest large amounts of caffeine and affix yourself to your typewriter/computer/stone tablet. There’s no other way.

Step #4: Buddy up

No one can go it alone. I know the stereotype is the loner writer versed in catspeak hidden behind vicariously overflowing bookshelves and discarded bottles of (insert drink of choice here). In reality, the writing community is honest, open, large, and supporting of all aspiring writers. Get in there and start mingling. Whoa, slow down. You’re invading my bubble.

Step #5: Know that it’s a journey, not a destination.

Writing is an ongoing activity. The path to recovery can’t be found overnight. It’s a long road filled with heartache, deleted scenes, occasional bouts of useless sobbing, and maybe even a three city action scene if you are truly feeling industrious.

Step #6: Rough drafts are supposed to be rough; otherwise they’d be called smooth drafts

Genius doesn’t happen the first go round (unless, of course, you’re me—just kidding). It takes several passes to get it down right. It even takes multiple sets of eyes reviewing it multiple times to get it right. One suggestion, use people with eyes inside their head to review your work. Just passing eyes over you paper isn’t very productive, can sometimes be messy, and is illegal in at least three states.

Step #7: Get connected

All the cool kids are doing it. Not enough? Getting connected through social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Linkedin lets you stay on top of the latest trends and news in the publishing world. Agents, publicists, magazines, editors, and other authors are actively tweeting, facebooking, and otherwise overwhelming the electronic airwaves with useful information and tips. Plus, if you’re addicted to videos of babies dancing and useless trivia you may find yourself in terminal dependency.

Step #8: Become like Grasshopper

I don’t mean aimlessly jumping in random patterns that repeatedly bring you back underneath the shoe you are trying to avoid. I mean become a student. Read about writing. Read about the business of writing. Attend workshops, get subscriptions to Writer’s Digest, and look for opportunities to advance your knowledge of the industry. If you insist on jumping around, you can do it so long as you’re making your way to the nearest learning opportunity.

Step #9: You must submit!

I don’t mean total domination (although that is my endgame). No, I mean you’re never going to be a published author if you never submit anything! Go ahead, take the plunge. Send that great story to the magazine or agent you’ve been eyeing from across the internet. Just remember to follow their guidelines, be courteous and gracious, and did I mention to follow their guidelines?

Step #10: There are other fish in the sea.

Okay, so you took the plunge and got your heart ripped out, stepped on, thrown in a blender set on mutilate, and doused with lemon juice (graphic, but true). Frame that rejection. Put it up on your wall and scream with fists waving “I’ll show you!” Accept the fact that, just like the blue eyed honey in tenth grade, it wasn’t meant to be. Maybe you both weren’t in the right place. Maybe, deep down, that agent or magazine just didn’t have the right “je ne sais quoi.” Pick yourself up by the bootstraps and get back in that saddle (sorry, I AM a Texan).

Step #11: Shake that money maker

Whohoo! After several nights of fist waving and a hundred more submissions you finally found an agent/publisher who sees you for the ass-kicking, wordsmith you are. Shake what your mama gave you and rejoice in the fact that you stuck it out, pursued your dream, and are reaping the rewards of your hard work. Ignore the Bravo inspired outbursts and tantrums that occurred along the way.

Step #12: Share the Love

Now that you have made it through the eleven rings of hell, it’s time to pay it forward. The student must become the master (and the student). Share the heartache, trials, and mistakes you have made with others. Let them know they’re not alone and that if they truly want to pursue a career in writing they must understand that to do so is crazy (see step #1) but damn well worth it!

The Magic Number Theory of Querying

One more post about queries and then, I promise, I'll move on. I stole this from someone and can no longer remember who, but if someone wants to take credit, I'll gladly give it. Any if someone else can state it better, that would be good, too. This is a little long winded.

First, I'm assuming your project is as good as you can make it. It's as good or better than what's on the market and it's ready to be published. I'm also assuming you want to be published by a major house and, to do that, you need an agent. And you're sending out queries and collecting rejections and wondering if you'll EVER reach your goal.

As a querying writer you have your own, individual magic number. You don't know what it is, but it is written in stone somewhere. It's the number of queries you must send out before you land that elusive agent, the one who "falls in love" with your work and then manages to get it sold for you. An agent who can't sell your work, necessitating getting another agent, is a pre-agent, and doesn't count. Only your "real" agent, the one who sells for you. When you send out the query with the magic number on it, you're set, done, reached your goal. (Until you go on to the rest of the stuff, which is just as hard, only different.)

The beauty of this theory is that you can regard each rejection as a step closer to your magic number. Another rejection? Okay, the magic number wasn't 17. A few more? Okay, it wasn't 28, or 52, or 77, or maybe not even 110. Each rejection is PROGRESS. You're getting closer to your magic number.

You may lose patience and try other routes. It may even help to get the big agent and the big publishing house if you publish something with a good small press. (Publishing with a vanity press won't help unless that's your final goal.)

Another writer, Lina Zeldovich, has a similar theory she calls Stairway to Heaven. Every rejection letter builds her stairway and gets her closer.

Either way, don't view rejection letters as marks of failure, but rather as marks of success.

I just hope my magic number isn't ten thousand.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The October Scary Story Event

The October Scary Story Event (OSSE) is a writing contest – of sorts – that the good folks over at The Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine put on. This is the second year they have done it.

The OSSE works like this. You write a scary story during the month of October and submit it. The story should be between about 2,000 – 6,000 words and scary. It can be a story you’ve been thinking of writing or it can be a brand new idea, but the most important thing is that you write it this month. No cheating.

Writing with a deadline can be a great motivator, so this is an awesome opportunity to get off your duff and put those fingers to work. You’ve got almost four weeks left, so there’s plenty of time to get it done. And you never know; your story might just be selected.

The Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine is a podcast magazine. They pay 1/4 cent a word, up to a maximum of $5. You can find them at

You can find out more about the author of this article at

Proof Social Media Kicks Ass

Here's a brief follow up on the previous social media post.

Publisher's Weekly
recently posted an article by an agent discussing how she uses it to find new talent. The quality of posts and response among the community stimulates interest across the spectrum. Personally, the list of agents, publicists, and published authors on my buddy lists on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Goodreads continue to grow exponentially. It's a tight and active community. Still don't believe me? Read the article for yourself:

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Secret of Writing

Every successful author who writes about the art and craft of writing will tell you the secret. If you want to be a writer, you only have to do one thing. You have to write.

I know. It sounds easy. It’s even easier to respond; “I know how to write. What’s next?”

But that’s just it…there is no “What’s next?” That’s all there is. When you start writing, I mean putting your fingers to the keyboard everyday and pumping out 1,000-2,000 words, the rest just comes naturally. Seriously. I’m not kidding.

Maybe you don’t know what to write about. I would make a suggestion. Start with 20-minute writing exercises. Again, I’m not kidding. Start a timer for 20 minutes and turn it on when you start writing.

There are several good books and websites that will give you ideas to write about. A Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves and The Writer’s Idea Book by Jack Heffron are just two examples. If you can’t afford those (yet), then here are a few ideas to get you started:

- Write about a time at the carnival

- Write about a pet

- Write using “Why does it always have to be about the money?” as the first line of your story.

- Write about your first dental experience (or any dental experience).

- Or just step outside and write about something you see. Or get on a bus. Or eat in a restaurant. Or go to a sports game. Or visit a hospital. Or a church. Or a Nursing Home. You get the idea.

The point is, you don’t need the theme for the next great American novel to start writing. You just need to write. And if you want to get down to it, it’s not a great idea that makes a great story. It’s all the details that an author interweaves to make a good story. The “great idea” is only a catalyst, a backdrop for a story driven by characters and the reader’s love for those characters.

So, what’s the secret to writing. The secret is nothing more than to start putting words down on paper (or typing them into a computer). Being a writer is nothing more than writing. If you’re not actually writing, then you're actually not a writer.

You can find out more about the author of this article at

Saturday, October 3, 2009

World Building - Setting Your Scope

The very first step to the World Building approach is to set your scope. Scope concerns the size of your world and can be as small as a phone booth or span multiple universes. I even remember a silly game I played as a kid that consisted of two lily pads, two frogs, and some flies flying around on screen. Man, my brothers and I played that game for hours! I use Lord of the Rings and Star Wars a lot as my examples because they are classic stories that provide great examples for many of aspects of story telling (and because I'm a huge geek!). The scope of Tolkien's Lord of the Ring's trilogy was western Middle Earth. Lucas's scope in Star Wars spanned a galaxy, of course.

Once you set the scope you have defined boundaries, set limitations for yourself in much the same way that the first level of an outline does. From there your world and your story will begin to take shape before you ever type your first word.

Here then are some questions to ask yourself when thinking of the scope of your world.

1. How big? Multiple universes, a galaxy, a solar system, planet, continent, island, or a couple of lily pads?
2. What is(are) the shape of the world(s)? Normal sphere, flat, broken, Dyson sphere, other?
3. What is(are) the moon(s) like if any? Are there any rings around your world?
4. Atmosphere? Nitrogen/Oxygen, Methane, Tibanna, or even none?
5. What is the climate like? Think Hoth, Tatooine, Kashyyyk, or New Zealand.
6. What is the terrain like? Flat, hilly, mountainous, caverns, rippled by some huge cosmic event?
7. What are the "water"-ways like? Are the oceans of water, liquid nitrogen, or some other fluid? Are they shallow or deep? How do the rivers, lakes, and inland seas define your world?
8. What are major flora and fauna considerations for your world? This is not about defining specific kinds of organisms, but broad definitions. Maybe there are only microbes, or insects and a few small grasses. Perhaps there are massive mushrooms or huge predators or even deadly gas-filled behemoths floating among the methane clouds.
9. Is the core of your world molten, ice, or an immortal sleeping dragon?

These are of course pretty big concepts. If your scope is smaller, take these down to a smaller scale but ask the same questions. And certainly you aren't limited to these. Hopefully the questions above will get your creative juices flowing.

And just to give you an example, the book I'm working to get published right now (Islands of Loar: Sundered) is a book about a planet that exploded and the people now live on a few large chunks floating in space. Only magic keeps them alive.

Obviously the world your characters live in and where the story takes place can have a great deal to do with why the story happens the way it does. It shapes culture, politics, economics, nations, and sometimes even races.

Next time we'll take a look at world building from the cultural level.