Reminders to Live Today & 10 Books

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Last Sunday a former member of my writer’s group stopped by the library.  I knew she had quit her job to write full time and we talked about that a bit.  She said that life was short and she didn’t want to have any regrets. I really understood where she was coming from. Writing is a wonderful pursuit but it is work and trying to write while holding down a full time job out of the home and taking care of a child when you are home leaves little time for anything else.

Then Tuesday night I got the call that a dear friend and surrogate grandmother had passed away.  Wednesday morning I received an email that my uncle had passed. This hasn’t been easy to take. The only writing I’ve done since has been considering why this has been so hard to absorb.

One of my grandmothers passed away when I was eight.  I didn’t really understand what was going on. My grandfather passed when I was 11 and I don’t think I understood it any better. My other grandmother passed when I was 24 and I felt secure in what I knew and believed. I knew I would miss her but I believed that it was her time and she’d gone on to something better.

So why has this week been so hard? I think there are two reasons. One is that I feel less certain about whether our consciousness survives after death. I was once secure in my faith and beliefs but now I’m not so certain. The second is that I’m simply older and feeling closer to that inevitable conclusion of life

So that’s what I’m thinking and writing about this week.  On a lighter note, there’s been a post about ten books that have somehow touched you in some way.  I’ll list some below.

  1. Dune by Frank Herbert
  2. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  3. A Wind in the Door by Madeline L’Engle
  4. The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
  5. Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Eleanor Pruitt Stewart
  6. A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett
  7. Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon
  8. The Chronicles of Narnia (really hard to pick one) by C.S. Lewis
  9. The Joy Diet: 10 Daily Practices for a Happier Life by Martha Beck
  10. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

These aren’t necessarily my top ten, though some would be on that list. My problem is not in picking ten books that have touched me in some way, but in stopping.  There are far too many.  I add something to my Goodreads book shelf whenever I think of one. What are some of yours?

Charting Your Characters for NaNoWriMo

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So, what do you really need to know in order to write a good character? There’s the basics –

  1. Height
  2. Build
  3. Hair color
  4. Eye color
  5. Temperament
  6. Job
  7. Hobbies
  8. Skills

Then there’s getting down to the nitty gritty.  I just picked up Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do by Meredith Maran and I’ve been enjoying the entries on the various authors tremendously. (I admit I’ve been skipping around instead of reading straight through.) Terry McMillan has an interesting way of creating characters. Years ago she picked up a job application for McDonald’s and fills it out for every single character in her books.  She goes further though. “I create a five-page profile for every one of my characters so I know everything about them: what size shoes they wear, if their hair is dyed, if they bounce checks, have allergies, what they hate about themselves, what they wish they could change, if they pay their bills on time.”

Now, maybe this isn’t completely necessary but I can sure see the benefit.  I’ve always been something of a “method” writer, getting inside the character and writing from the inside out.  I need to know whether my character would really do the things that I’m writing for them.  Will it ring true for the reader?  I figure if I know my character inside out, I can put them in a situation and I will know what they will do, how they think and how they will react.

I found a great job application out of Alaska at http://www.jobs.state.ak.us/forms/genapp.pdf  It asks the generic questions but in a way that gives you a broad idea of your character and lets you infer some interesting things.  For instance, if someone is willing, or even prefers, to work the graveyard shift – why?  Hmmm. Who would your character contact for references?  How about in an emergency?

4,000 Questions for Getting to Know Anyone and Everyone by Barbara Ann Kipfer offers some very specific questions that you could ask your character.  I think it’s a great book for a writer to have, but I don’t think I could possibly answer each one for all of my characters.  She does break it down into some good categories.  Some of these questions are hers and some are mine, but more are hers than mine.

Childhood & School

  1. Where did you grow up?
  2. Where did you go to school?
  3. What is your saddest memory? (And a bow to Humans of New York)
  4. Do you have any siblings?  Did you get along with them?
  5. In what organizations and extracurricular activities did you participate?
  6. Did you have any serious accidents or illnesses as a child?

Family & Friends

  1. Did you have any pets as a child?
  2. As a child, were you closer to your mother or your father?
  3. What is your ancestry and ethnic background?
  4. What was your parents’ relationship like?
  5. Did you like school?
  6. Did you have a favorite teacher or subject?

Fun & Sport

  1. What are you currently reading?
  2. Do you participate in any organized activity?
  3. What do you do for fun?
  4. What do you think is funny?
  5. What sports do you like to watch?
  6. Do you dance?

Habits

  1. Do you get up on the weekend or sleep in?
  2. Where do you eat dinner?
  3. Is your house neat and/or clean, or is it messy and/or dirty?
  4. What are your vices?
  5. Are you careful or careless with money?
  6. Which pant leg do you put on first?

Love & Sex

  1. Do you have a significant other?
  2. Do you believe in love at first sight?
  3. Do you believe in marriage?
  4. What sexual position do you favor?
  5. Who was your first love?
  6. Tell me about your first kiss?

Outlook

  1. Are you a pessimist, an optimist or a realist?
  2. Do you like or dislike change?
  3. What are five things you are grateful for?
  4. What worries you the most?
  5. Do you have goals for your future?
  6. What is “success” to you?

Politics

  1. What political party, if any, do you align yourself with?
  2. Are you pro-choice or pro-life?  Why?
  3. Do you believe in the death penalty?
  4. Do you think we should have national healthcare?
  5. What do you think of marriage equality?
  6. What does the term “feminism” mean to you?

Spirituality

  1. Were you brought up in a religious tradition?
  2. Do you identify with a particular religion now?
  3. Do you believe in ghosts?
  4. What does “evil” mean?
  5. Why do you think bad things happen to good people?
  6. Do you believe in destiny or choice?

Work

  1. What was your first real job?
  2. What do you do for a living?
  3. Do you like what you do?
  4. Do you think you’re a hard worker or lazy?  What would your boss say?
  5. If you had to change careers, what would you do?
  6. How many hours do you work each week?

How do you build your characters?

Organizing a NaNoWriMo Novel The Jim Butcher Way

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Okay, first of all, do you know who Jim Butcher is? He writes this fantastic series of urban fantasy books based around a wizard named Harry Blackstone Dresden in modern day Chicago. If it sounds interesting, there’s already something like 12 books in the series. Check him out at your local library or on Amazon. Here’s Jim Butcher’s Amazon page.  

Okay, he also writes another series called Codex Alera and I’m sure the writing is just as fine but I haven’t read it so I can’t say I love it, like I can the Harry Dresden series. They are fun, fast-paced action but also really good writing and he always hits me with something deep somewhere along the way. Love it!

Anyway, he also wrote a a LiveJournal where he shared information on writing. I’ve been looking at distilling it down to steps I can use to plan my novel for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month.)

Here’s what I came up with. If it looks interesting, check out Butcher’s LiveJournal for more in-depth and better explanation. Be warned, it goes backward. You have to scroll to the bottom to the see the first entry then work up. 

Some of these were good reminders for me but some were new ideas that make good sense, like the Stimulus-Response Transactions.

  •  Conflict should exist in one form or another in every single scene. 
  • All of your characters need to have a goal
  • Use “Stimulus-Response Transactions.” Something happens to your character and he/she reacts. If you reverse that, it can confuse the reader so don’t do it unless you are very confident.
  • Write in either first or third person, especially if you’re just starting out. It keeps things much simpler.
  • Choose your point of view character based on who has the most to lose.

Write a Story Skeleton description of the main plot of your book in two sentences.

“*WHEN SOMETHING HAPPENS*, *YOUR PROTAGONIST* *PURSUES A GOAL*. But will he succeed when *ANTAGONIST PROVIDES OPPOSITION*?”

Characters

What is (or what makes) an interesting character?

  • Exaggerate a feature – physical, mental or emotional.
  • Give them an interesting position, whether it is a social, geographic, intellectual or moral.
  • Introduce your character with a solid Characteristic Entry Action that is typical of who and what he is.
  • Make sure they act believably.
  • Make your character a whole, full person by showing his or her emotions, reactions and decisions.

I love the idea of Tags and Traits. It can help make your character unique if you pick the right combination and it helps solidify the character in the reader’s mind.

  • Tags are a few specific words you use to describe your character, and as much as possible, only your character.
  • Traits are unique items like a prop.

The Big Middle seems to be Butcher’s way of thinking of the climax. If it’s different, I’m not sure how. Maybe it just arrives earlier. (If somebody has a different understanding of this, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.) Basically, Butcher recommends creating a great big dramatic event for the end of the middle of the book which will lead directly to the homestretch.

The organization of scenes the way he explained it makes a lot of sense to me and really helps in plotting and organizing a story. They have to include –

Scenes

  • Point of View Character
  • Goal
  • Conflict (scene question)
  • Setback (scene answer)
  • Possible scene answers include
  • Yes! (but that gets you no where so) –
  • Yes, but..
  • No, and furthermore!

Sequels

Sequels are what happens after a scene. A character reacts emotionally, then thinks about it logically, considers possible outcomes to actions he could take and makes a decision. It’s simple and this is how people react to events so it keeps the reader moving forward quickly.

A Story Climax is the answer to the story question. It should include –

  • Isolation – friends can’t help him now.
  • Confrontation – obviously, with the antagonist.
  • Dark Moment – Confrontation did not go well.
  • Choice – between something good and something really bad.
  • Dramatic Reversal – poetic justice.
  • Resolution – keep it short.

Organization – The Basics

  • Write down your protagonist, his tags and traits, and how you intend to introduce him.
  • Ditto, but for the main opposition.
  • Create a story arc on paper or somewhere and fill in the opening scene, the big middle at the top and the climax on the right.
  • Fill in any scenes that you have in mind.
  • Add in phrases describing scenes that lead your character from one to the next.
  • Do Story Arches for all of your subplots.
  • Profile every significant character on his own sheet,
  • Outline scenes and sequels.
  • Repeat until climax.

As I said, this is the basics, Butcher’s (very entertaining) LiveJournal is something like 47 pages long and remember, this is one way to do it. Maybe it looks good to you, or maybe parts of it do. Take what works and leave the rest.

Happy Novel Planning!

Dispiriting critiques – throw a writing dog a bone, would ya?

A bad critique can be dispiriting.

I started out really happy with what I found when I went back to look at my draft of Biomalware.  I know it needs a lot of work.  I’m sure it’s going to change over time, but I think I’ve got the bones of a really good story.  Maybe it’s too early to be submitting it to a competition but the deadline is next week and I don’t want to wait a year.

I’m submitting the first fifty pages and a summary to the James Jones Fellowship contest.  The award is to “honor the spirit of unblinking honesty, determination, and insight into modern culture.”   I think my novel falls into that.

There may be even more competition this year because I saw it in Writer’s Digest, so I’m sure a whole lot of other people did too.  Now, I may not have a chance in hell but I’m submitting whatever I’ve got at the end of the month because if I don’t submit, there’s absolutely NO chance I’ll win, place or at least receive an honorable mention.   (I say at least but it sounds pretty damn good to me.)

So, I did a quick edit and sent it out to my writer’s group and a friend, hoping for feedback to help me clean it up and focus it.  I received a couple quick responses that made some suggestions but were generally favorable.

Then, last night, one of the group ripped into it.

For the love of God, if you’re critiquing someone’s work, find one or two things that you liked about it.  Don’t just hammer them with everything you see wrong!  It’s guaranteed to put the writer on the defensive and it’s just not nice.

Now, he gave me some good notes and some that I totally disagree with.  It’s my book so I get to decide what to take and what to leave.

But there’s a weight when someone rips apart your story that way.  It drags you down.  You waste energy and time fighting out from under it.

Now I have to somehow overcome this malaise.  Right now I just want a nap and a piece of cake.  I’m not going to have either though.  I’m going to get through my work day, do what I need to at home (which will probably take most of the evening) and eke out some time to work on my book.

Maybe some good music will help.

A Modern Classic?

Can anyone write what me might term a modern classic anymore?  Or are there simply too many people writing and too much being published for any one book to stand out that way?  Yes, one might point to Harry Potter but now that the books have all been published, it’s just a matter of time before the series of movies are finished being released.  It will be interesting to see how often the books are still checked out five years after that point. 

As I sort through books on the library shelves using the “dusty book” list and removing those that haven’t been checked out within the last five years, there is precious little that can withstand the weeding.  There are some books that I resist on behalf of, either because they are old classics or because it sounds too interesting and I think someone just might want to check it out when the shelves are weeded so people can see what is really there worth seeing.

Perhaps I’m just not seeing the modern classics because those books aren’t on the list, but I can’t think of one at the moment.