Guest post: Writing 201 by Paul Lell

Paul

Tonight’s guest blog post, on the topic of more writing basics, 🙂 is brought to you by science-fiction / fantasy author Paul Lell.

Writing 201

After my “I just do it” line, I can see the next round coming at me from a mile away! “Okay, so write every chance I get, accept criticism, and don’t do it for the money. Great advice, Paul. But seriously, how do you craft a story?”

My writing tends to be very organic. I start with world building, every time. I make an environment that is as complete as I can possibly make it. I establish history and politics, business practices, science and technology. Even the general psychology of the masses needs to be accounted for. Detail is everything, for me at least, because without a believable world, the characters and the story are pretty meaningless. After that I move on to character building. My characters tend to be as detailed as my world. I have huge piles of data about my characters that I doubt anyone else will ever see, just to make them as real as possible in my mind’s eye.

Once I have my world designed, and my characters fleshed out, I begin the story creation process with a problem. What is it that has everyone riled up? What are the potential dangers to the characters? Their friends/family? The world? Further, how do the characters get involved? What is it that pulls them into the quagmire of the story’s plot? Everyone needs motivation to act, and it is always helpful, from a storytelling standpoint, if our characters’ motivations are believable to the reader, and compelling enough to the character(s) that their involvement is as realistic as it can be.

Next, I try and establish a few key plot points that I think I want my story to go through on its winding path to conclusion. This is more often than not a mental map, and I try to keep it intentionally vague, because establishing fixed points makes me feel as if my stories become very forced as I try to manipulate the plot, and players, into meeting those ridged points. The dots I try and pin to the map are the start, the end, and two or three waypoints in the middle. But again, I try to keep these points as vague as possible, so it is easier for them to change and flow as the organic story begins to take shape.

Then, I toss my characters in at the starting point and let them go! I find that, for me, the story just flows, if I’ve done my job of world and character building properly. The characters will have motivations, desires, and goals, and those create personality, when combined with their history. Their personality dictates how they react to the world and deal with the problem of the plot.

To borrow an analogy from Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ (an excellent book that I recommend to all writers), the process is much like sculpture, or the excavation of a buried dinosaur skeleton. Everything is in place and as detailed as I can make it. My job as the writer is to clear away the unnecessary bits of dirt or stone that obscure the final piece from view. Sometimes it’s easy going; sometimes not so much. But I cannot force the end result to be something it shouldn’t, unless I want to risk ruining it.

Thank you, Paul.

3rd KeyPaul Lell is a Science Fiction writer and publisher, best known for his series, ‘The Keys of Kalijor’ which can be found on all major eReaders and at all major online booksellers.

You can read more about Paul Lell, his books, and his crazy life, at www.Kalijor.com.

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If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please”.

The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with children’s author Stephen Lamoreaux – the five hundred and eighty-eighth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me.

** NEW!! You can now subscribe to this blog on your Kindle / Kindle app!

See http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B008E88JN0

or http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B008E88JN0 for outside the UK **

You can sign up to receive these blog posts daily or weekly so you don’t miss anything. You can contact me and find me on the internetview my Books (including my debut novel!) and I also have a blog creation / maintenance service especially for, but not limited to, writers. If you like this blog, you can help me keep it running by donating and choose an optional free eBook.

For writers / readers willing to give feedback and / or writers wanting feedback, take a look at this blog’s Feedback page.

As I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t unfortunately review books but I have a list of those who do, and a feature called ‘Short Story Saturdays’ where I review stories of up to 2,500 words (and post stories of up to 3,000 words). Alternatively if you have a short story or self-contained novel extract / short chapter (ideally up to 1000 words) that you’d like critiqued and don’t mind me posting it online in my new Red Pen Critique Sunday night posts, then do email me. I am now also looking for flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays and poetry for Post-weekend Poetry.

Guest post: Ten Questions You Need to Ask Your Characters Before They Can Stay In Your Story by Nina Munteanu

Tonight’s guest blog post, on the topic of characters, is brought to you by science fiction / fantasy author, writing coach guest blogger, interviewee and spotlightee Nina Munteanu.

Ten Questions You Need to Ask Your Characters Before They Can Stay In Your Story

Your story lives and breathes through your characters. Through them your premise, idea and your plot come alive. Characters give your story meaning; they draw in the reader who lives the journey through them. Without them you wouldn’t have a story—you’d have a treatise.

Here are some questions you need to ask each of your characters:

  1. Will the story fall apart or be significantly diminished if you disappear? If not, you don’t need to be there; you aren’t fulfilling a role in the book. Hugo award winning author Robert J. Sawyer reminds us that “story-people are made-to-order to do a specific job”: they tell a story. In real life, people may act through no apparent motivation, be confusing, incoherent and make pointless statements or actions. Story characters show more clear motivations, coherence, and consistency. They don’t clutter your story with muddle and confusion like real people do. They fit into your story like a major puzzle piece.
  2. What is your role? (e.g., protagonist, antagonist, mentor, catalyst, etc.). Each character fulfills a dramatic function in your story. You can’t just be there because you’re cute. Well, ok, maybe. But even being cute can and should provide a dramatic function in the story by exploring how that quality is viewed and treated by others. As with setting, which serves a similar purpose as character in story, every aspect of both minor and major characters interact with and illuminate story theme, premise and plot.
  3. What archetype do you fulfill? In the “hero’s journey” plot approach, each character fulfills one to several archetypes, which help define how they service the plot and theme of the story. The mentor archetype, for instance, generally believes in and enables the hero on his journey. The threshold guardian, on the other hand does not have faith in the hero and obstructs him on his journey. The hero archetype, usually on a quest (for truth, forgiveness, home, victory, faith, etc.), must negotiate her world of archetypes to reach her destination.
  4. How do you contribute to the major or minor theme of the book? This is particularly relevant for all major characters and their associated sub-plots. Sawyer stresses that “your main character should illuminate the fundamental conflict suggested by your premise.” All other characters, in turn, either help reflect the main character’s journey or the overall story premise and theme. If your book is about forgiveness, each character helps illuminate your exploration of this theme.
  5. Are you unique? If the reader can’t distinguish you from other characters, chances are you need to be eliminated because of point number 1 anyway. In order to contribute to story, characters must provide a sufficiently distinguishable feature, complete with sub-plot, on the story landscape. The more varied and rich the landscape is, the more interesting it will be. Fictional characters achieve distinction through individual traits that readers recognize and empathize with. Authors use vernacular and body language to achieve colorful fictional characters.
  6. Are you interesting? If you aren’t interesting to the reader, you won’t do your job. Readers need to notice you, distinguish you and find something about you that will keep their interest—even if it’s something annoying. Just remember to be consistent—unless inconsistency is part of your character.
  7. What is your story arc? Do you develop, change, and learn something by the end? If not, you will be two-dimensional and less interesting. This is just as true for minor characters as for main characters. The more characters the author imbues with the depth to develop, the more multi-layered the story will become. This is because each character and her associated arc provides her own perspective to the theme. This is what is truly meant by “richness” — not the richness of infinite detail, like a baroque painting, but of infinite meaning like an impressionist work. Choose your minor characters as you choose your major characters.
  8. What major obstacle(s) must you overcome? You need these to struggle and “grow” and change; otherwise there is no tension in the story, no development and movement and no story arc. Your character will be like a still-life with no movement, no direction and no interest. The more your character changes over a story, the more she will be noticed and remembered.
  9. What’s at stake for you (theme), and for the world (plot), and how do these tie together? If a writer is unable to tie these together in story, the story will fail to evoke emotional involvement and empathy. It will lack cohesiveness and will not give the reader a fulfilling conclusion with ultimate satisfaction through the character’s journey related to theme (the hero’s journey, essentially).
  10. Do you change from beginning to end? If you don’t develop throughout the story, then you aren’t growing as a result of the thematic elements and plot issues presented in the story. In other words, you haven’t learned your lesson. While it’s ok for some characters not to develop (e.g., to be one note or flat or plain old stubbornly the same) this is disastrous for any of your main characters. Just ensure that the changes you make your character go through are warranted and relevant to the theme.

Characters help the writer achieve empathy and commitment from the reader. Characters are really why readers keep reading. If the reader doesn’t invest in the characters, she won’t really care what happens next. It is important to be mindful of the emotional and narrative weight of a character and achieve balance between characters. For instance, the foil of the protagonist should carry equal weight; otherwise the reader won’t believe the match-up. Equally, a large cast—often used in epic fantasies or historical pieces—can be used successfully, but only if each character is given a clearly distinguishable personality and role.

That was great. Thank you, Nina!

nina-fireplace-crop01-close2-webNina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist and novelist. In addition to five published novels, she has authored award-winning short stories, articles and non-fiction books, which have been translated into several languages throughout the world.

Recognition for her work includes the Midwest Book Review Reader’s Choice Award and the Aurora Award, Canada’s top prize in science fiction.

Nina lectures at university and teaches writing workshops and courses based on her award-nominated textbook The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!

Last Summoner

Her award-winning blog The Alien Next Door hosts lively discussion on science, travel, pop culture, writing and movies. Visit www.ninamunteanu.com for more information and to book a coaching / workshop session or class with Nina.

Her latest book, just released this autumn by Starfire, is The Last Summoner, a historical fantasy about a young baroness who discovers she can alter history.

The book is currently enjoying Canadian Bestseller status at Amazon.ca in Historical Fantasy.

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If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please”.

The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with fantasy and YA author Elaine Ouston – the five hundred and seventy-seventh of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me.

** NEW!! You can now subscribe to this blog on your Kindle / Kindle app!

See http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B008E88JN0

or http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B008E88JN0 for outside the UK **

You can sign up to receive these blog posts daily or weekly so you don’t miss anything. You can contact me and find me on the internetview my Books (including my debut novel!) and I also have a blog creation / maintenance service especially for, but not limited to, writers. If you like this blog, you can help me keep it running by donating and choose an optional free eBook.

For writers / readers willing to give feedback and / or writers wanting feedback, take a look at this blog’s Feedback page.

As I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t unfortunately review books but I have a list of those who do, and a feature called ‘Short Story Saturdays’ where I review stories of up to 2,500 words. Alternatively if you have a short story or self-contained novel extract / short chapter (ideally up to 1000 words) that you’d like critiqued and don’t mind me posting it online in my new Red Pen Critique Sunday night posts, then do email me. I am now also looking for flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays and poetry for Post-weekend Poetry.

Guest post: How to Eat (or write) a Book: Probing the Pros and Problems of Prologues by Lauren Grimley

Tonight’s second guest blog post, on the topic of prologues, is brought to you by urban fantasy author Lauren Grimley.

How to Eat (or write) a Book: Probing the Pros and Problems of Prologues

Like most writers, I’ve spent hours researching my craft. I’ve read agents’ websites, blogs of established authors, and books on writing and publishing. I also attended conferences and workshops run by writers and agents. I learned early on that tastes vary. There are few hard and fast rules for anything related to writing. In the same conference an agent will espouse the importance of doing something one way, and a writer will enter the room and tell you to ignore everything you just heard. However, study enough and some general consensuses begin to emerge. One area most agree on is the use of prologues, or rather the misuse of prologues.

Their biggest problem with prologues is that they come before the rest of the book. Yes, this is inherent to prologues, but the problem is that in today’s market, when consumers are flooded with choices, most writers and agents agree that a writer has about two pages to sell a book. Those crucial first pages need to establish setting and tone, introduce an interesting main character, and have enough action or intrigue to hook a potential reader. If the first two pages are prologue, that doesn’t always happen.

So as readers should we kiss the days of prologues goodbye? As writers should we avoid them like dream sequences or dialogue tags? Is this too a matter of taste or a hard and fast rule? Well, in my opinion, while most meals are best eaten course by course, there are times when it’s not just okay, but downright decadent to break the rules and devour a meal or a book out of order.

Deciding when a prologue will work starts with determining what type of prologue you’re writing. By definition, the events of the prologue should take place prior to the events of the main story. I call this an appetizer prologue. Depending on your server, appetizers can be served long before the meal or just seconds before the main course arrives. Appetizer prologues usually provide backstory about the main character from years earlier or from seconds before the story begins. As a reader, I love characters’ backstory, but, most of the time, I agree with the agents and other writer’s on this one. Backstory is usually best when worked into the plot later on. If it’s important enough to the main character’s life, they’ll think about it at some point in the story. That’s the place to put it in. If it’s not important enough for the main character to think back on it, then the reader doesn’t need to know it, especially in the opening pages. In this case, Mom was right, you need to let the readers’ save room for the main course.

Plenty of books, though, have prologues that don’t actually fit the traditional definition of describing events prior to the start of the story. Many writers use a prologue to introduce the conflict, often through the eyes of the antagonist. As a writer, the pull to do this is strong. Everywhere you read says to start with action, hook the reader, set up the tone. What better way to do this than to drop the reader into a scene with the bad guy being bad? It’s like giving the reader a taste of a spicy side dish. I did this myself in one of my drafts of my first book. Writing it was a great way to really get to know my antagonist, so naturally I thought reading it would have the same effect. The problem is that it draws the reader away from the main story and the main character. It’s also hard to write without giving away too much, too soon. You might pull the reader in with that zing, but then when they start chapter one that first bite might fall short. Better to build expectation and intrigue with a taste of the main dish. Make their mouths water with your main character. Save the heat for after they’ve whetted their palates. Unless…

Hey, there are exceptions to every rule. Books later in series and even sequels can successfully start with a side dish prologue. Readers of a series or sequel already know and, if they’ve continued to book two or beyond, presumably like the main dish. They know what to expect. Tone, setting, and characterization have been established in previous books, and although those things need to be further developed in a new book, readers can be side-tracked for a few pages without being overly jolted when the story returns to its main course. In these cases introducing a character who is new to the series piques readers’ interest by assuring them something different is in store for the main character.

Finally, we have dessert: it is by far my favorite course. As a reader, the climax is the triple-layer chocolate cake of a good book. Let’s face it, dessert is the real reason most of us go out to eat. So why not give readers a little dessert before the meal? Some writers do just that in their prologues, which aren’t actually prologues at all, but rather an excerpt from a crucial point later in the book. These dessert prologues are really teasers. They’re included to make the reader’s mouths or minds water for more. Stephanie Meyer did this in her obscenely successful Twilight series. As a reader of these books, I enjoyed this type of teaser, especially in the later books in the series, since I knew from reading book one, that the prologue would appear later. I remember reading the teaser/prologue of the final books and trying desperately to predict how the story would enfold. I think that’s the key if a writer wants to use the dessert prologue. The passage picked must only hint at what’s to come. You can’t actually hand the reader dessert first, or they’ll never eat their meal. But pass an artful dessert tray under their noses a few times and you’ll have them zipping through those other courses in unbridled anticipation.

So, to prologue or not to prologue? Readers’ tastes in books and beginnings vary as much as their tastes in food. You’re never going to please every reader with every decision. Some, like me, are happy to see the dessert tray first. Others like a little appetizer. Still others, which apparently include most agents, are purists who like to start with a well-presented main course. Frankly, I think that if what you put on the plate is appetizing enough, it won’t matter to readers or agents what course you started with. Any great beginning to a book, be it prologue or main story, is a writer’s way of telling their reader “bon appétit.”

I’m off to have some Banoffee Pie. Thank you, Lauren. 🙂

Lauren Grimley lives in central Massachusetts where she grew up, but her heart is on the beaches of Cape Cod where she spends as much of her time as possible.  After graduating from Boston University she became a middle school English teacher.  She has her seventh graders to thank for starting her on this path; it was they who convinced a rather skeptical new teacher vampire stories were worth reading.  She now spends her time writing them when she should be correcting papers. If she finds free time beyond these activities, she’s likely to spend it on a beach with a book and bottle of wine close by.

Teaser for Unforeseen, the first book of an adult urban fantasy series:

Alex was quite sure gifted was a term delusional parents applied to their strictly average children, vampires were gorgeous dead guys in her eighth-grade girls’ novels, and Seers was a middle schooler’s misspelling of a department store known for power tools. Teachers, however, don’t know everything–it’s Alex’s turn to be educated.

Running alone the night before school ends, Alex is violently attacked. Regaining consciousness, she finds herself in the home of the Rectinatti Regan, the leader of one of two covens of vampires battling nightly on the streets of her city. If that discovery wasn’t enough to make her think she’d gone nuts, she realizes she’s sensing the emotions of another of the vampires as strongly as she feels her own. Discovering these creatures have the answers to what she is and why she was attacked, she decides she wants to stay, despite knowing it is a dangerous, possibly deadly desire.

You can find more about Lauren and her writing via…

Links to Unforeseen and “Unknown” (a short from later in the series):

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If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please”.

The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with poet Jeanne Buesser – the five hundred and thirty-fifth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me.

You can sign up to receive these blog posts daily or weekly so you don’t miss anything. You can contact me and find me on the internetview my Books and I also have a blog creation service especially for, but not limited to, writers.

Unfortunately, as I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t review books but I have a feature called ‘Short Story Saturdays’ where I review stories of up to 2,500 words. Alternatively if you have a short story or self-contained novel extract / short chapter (ideally up to 1000 words) that you’d like critiqued and don’t mind me reading it / talking about and critiquing it (I send you the transcription afterwards so you can use the comments or ignore them) 🙂 on my ‘Bailey’s Writing Tips’ podcast, then do email me. They are fortnightly episodes, usually released on Sundays, interweaving the recordings between the red pen sessions with the hints & tips episodes. I am now also looking for flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays and poetry for Post-weekend Poetry.