Monday, June 29, 2015

Why Writers Need Writers

SPECIAL NOTE: I realize today is Monday, not Saturday, and I realize I didn’t post on Saturday. Long story short, I wrote up this post on Saturday in the car, with the full intention of posting it that same day when I got home. However, I returned to find that the internet was down (yay storms), and the internet people couldn’t come out until Monday. Thus, I’m posting a little late. My apologies. But, hey! Two posts in one week, right? So, without further ado, Saturday’s post:

Today, I returned from one of the greatest weeks in my life. I spent five (and a little) days in Olathe, Kansas, at a writer’s conference hosted by One Year Adventure Novel.
Five and a half days surrounded by people with similar interests, goals, age, and a love for writing does things to you.
Strange things.
Wonderful things.
I learned many things in this short week, but I think most of it can be summed up in a simple sentence: I need other writers. In fact, I’m pretty sure I could extend that sentence to be rather broad: All writers need other writers. And here’s why:

Writing is hard. Of all the interests (as a hobby or living), writing very well may be the hardest. The writing industry and the writing audience are fickle beasts, gobbling up some books while spitting out others with seemingly random choice.
Jeff Gerke, one of the speakers at the OYAN conference, spoke about why this is. He said it’s not about following all the “rules”, but about “Reader Engagement”. This very idea makes writing all the more difficult, yet all the more rewarding when done right.
This “Reader Engagement” is why, as Torry Martin said, writers need “connections”. It’s about “who you know, more than what you know”, he added. The idea is sort of tragic, that who knows who will be more successful regardless of their talent, but it’s reality. Torry (he despises the title “Mr. Martin”) took the idea of making connections one step further, suggesting that we extend our circles that we might extend the connections of others.

Daniel Schwabauer (the man who hosted the event) compared each of us to a Wardrobe. Inside of us, he claims, is a magical land full of “perilous realms”. However, none of us can enter our own magical world. We can only enter through another Wardrobe. Wardrobes are doors, but they cannot enter themselves. In order to experience the magic and wonder of other places, we need each other. His analogy turned the week into something wondrous, with each of us becoming a Wardrobe for someone else.

Are you a Wardrobe? Better yet, is your door open, begging for others to enter and see what lies beyond?

I apologize for the shortness of this post, but my brain is still busy processing the past week, and the concept of ~two hundred authors crammed onto a college campus for a week. Young writers. Even better.

Friday, June 19, 2015

3 Reasons to Have a Deadline

How often do you, as a writer, find yourself unmotivated?
Myself, I hit this obstacle of “But I don’t want to!” almost every week. Something else (weariness, distractions, other activities) find its way in between me and what I want to write, edit, or outline. It’s easy to give into the idea that “I’ll make up for it tomorrow”, and just push the writing to the side.

Why is it so easy to fall for the lame excuses of “I’m too tired” and “I don’t feel like it”? Because writing is hard. Writing makes that math problem you never did figure out look like a cliché piece of cake. It doesn’t take creativity to solve that math problem.

So how do we beat the daily battle for our time? You could shut down distractions, and write regardless. You could stop writing and go outline, so you know where your story is going next. You could bang your head against your laptop until one of the two colliding objects shatters. You could go skydiving. You could even start a non-profit with all proceeds benefiting pelicans.

However, not all of these will work every time. A few of them aren’t even related to getting back to writing.
That’s why I want to offer another solution, when your other ideas aren’t working. Instead of going ‘insane’, why not have a deadline?

I love deadlines. A visible mark (especially a bunch of red ink on a calendar) that shows me when I need to be done is the best motivation you can give me. Some people hate deadlines, and are stressed out by them. If you’re one of those people (what kind of creature are you?), then maybe deadlines aren’t for you. And that’s fine. Whatever gets you back into writing is more important for you.

Oh right. Target for this post is to give you three reasons for deadlines. Focus.

1. They create a sense of urgency. How often do you skip writing and watch a movie/TV show instead? Let’s all admit we’ve done it. Yes, even me. I have put mindless staring at a screen in front of writing.
I’m not saying these are bad things. In fact, they’re very good things.
However, by having a deadline, you can’t set aside writing because “I can do it later”. No, not later, you need to do it now because it needs to be done. This simple motivation to get it done before that red-inked day on the calendar works wonders.

2. Deadlines inspire creativity. No more staring at the screen, waiting for inspiration. That inspiration may never come. Moments of epiphany are few and far between. Deadlines aren’t. Deadlines happen all the time, and drive us to get things done. The lazy part of your brain that’s supposed to be cooking up a thick plot with spiced characters won’t wake up if you’re just sitting and staring. It will, on the other hand, jerk awake at the mention of a deadline and begin working feverishly to cook up a concoction or two. It might even forget to put on its chef’s hat.

3. Deadlines create satisfaction. It’s common to feel stressed about a deadline. It’s two days away, laughing maniacally as you scramble to finish your project in time. Deadlines have deep, menacing voices, terrifyingly un-cliché minions like procrastination and disturbances, and the tendency to freeze us with fear at their very gazes.
But what happens when you beat the Deadline? When the dustsettles, and the deadline lies defeated at your feet, all its minions cowering before you, everything seems brighter. The world is a better place, because you defeated that dreaded deadline. Hope swells within you, and you might even let out a cliché victory cry like “ahahahahahahahahah”. Or something.

Deadlines are tools, just like your laptop, notebooks, pencils, pens, brain, and hands are tools. You can use them to aid you, or maybe they hamper you more than anything. Whatever they do for you, make them work for you. And suddenly, you’re churning out that story faster than you anticipated.

Now go, live your-
Ah, forget it.

Do you like deadlines? Why or why not? Leave a comment and share!

Saturday, June 13, 2015

8 Tips to Polishing Dialogue

As I said two weeks ago, I am a storyteller. I focus a lot on plot and setting. However, the one thing I tend to notice when I read is the dialogue. It’s almost an instinct, to know when a certain snippet of dialogue works, and when and why it might not.
I’ve been told I write smooth, easily to read dialogue. Even been asked how I do it. So, today I’d like to present eight ways for you to make your dialogue shine.

1. Use simple tags. Have you ever used the word “ejaculated” in your fiction writing? Well, unless you’re going for a Jules Verne feel, go find that word and replace it with “shouted” or even “said”.
Words like ejaculated and exhorted distract the reader from what the character is saying:

“Wow!” He ejaculated.
“Never do something for others,” she exhorted, “nothing good ever comes from it.”
Neither of these is necessarily bad (except for the moral of the second one), but they’d be well off without the exorbitant tags. Don’t be afraid to use “said”. In fact, don’t be afraid to use no tags at all, so long as it’s clear who’s talking.

2. Keep the time period in mind. How many people in 300 A.D. said “cool story, bruh”? Let me tell you: none. And how many people in 2015 A.D. say “that doth be a fine painting, my dear brother”? Again, the answer is none (you rebels don’t count).
The case is in point, but I’ll spell it out for you: when you write dialogue, use the right words for the time period, while maintaining the same style throughout the novel.
Let me make a note real fast: it’s perfectly fine to write a medieval fantasy with a laidback style, such as is common in modern novels. However, the more laidback it is, the less likely we’ll recognize it as “medieval fantasy”. Just be consistent.

3. Use quirks. Everyone has these little “ticks”, things they do without even realizing it. He cracks his knuckles, she fiddles with her hair, he bites his lower lip, and she drums her fingers. Those little things that make people real. What quirks do your characters have? 
There’s a theatre game I’ve played before, where you and another person pick a quirk/tick, and play out a situation before an audience. The audience then has to guess what your quirks are. It’s hilariously fun, and is a good way to find what quirks your characters have. Give them one (if they don’t have one), and play out a scene with other characters. If the quirk fits, let them keep it.
Now apply these quirks to dialogue, in the form of tags:

“I don’t know,” she said, biting her lower lip, “I don’t like this.”
“Aw, com’on, you’ll love it.” Jared grinned.
“All right, but if this is some messed up-“
“Just do it,” Jared said, running his fingers through his hair.

The quirks are easy to spot, simple to use, and realistic.

4. Accents. This follows similar lines with keeping to time period, but is more personal and setting-based. Accents can be a great way to spice up your dialogue without painful-sounding ejaculations. 

“What’re you doin’ here?” He snapped.
Gemma crinkled her nose. “Do you really think I’m here for anything more than I have already stated?”
“Yeah, yeah I does. Whadda you want?”
“Nothing from you, preposterous buffoon.”
He blinked. “Prepos… wart did you say?”

As a fair warning, I will say accents can take time to master and tweak to where they sound good. In addition, over dramatic accents and overly thick accents can make reading hard. Keep it in mind, and keep the meaning behind the accented words clear.

5. Use passive voice. A while ago I talked about passive voice, and when to use it. Dialogue is one of those instances. Sure, passive verbs can and will harm your novel, but how often do you use those same verbs in regular, everyday speech? Unless you’re religiously against them, probably often. I know I use them regularly.
Your prose may appear more “active” when you avoid passive voice altogether, but dialogue will begin to feel forced if “was” flows better than the alternative.

6. Use adverbs. Man. I’m telling you to break all the rules of fiction writing aren’t I?
Why yes, yes I am. Use the adverbs. Use them punctiliously. Adverbs are like passive voice. They can harm your novel, but dialogue sometimes flows better with them. If you’re not sure when it does… well, that’s what tip eight is for. But don’t skip ahead, tip seven is pretty good, too.

7. Imagine yourself saying the words. Read your dialogue to yourself. Could you see yourself using those exact words to convey the exact same message? Why or why not? Is the dialogue conveying the message too fluffy, or is it not detailed enough? What words would you change, and why? Chances are, the changes you’d make when you wanted to get the message across are change you should make.

8. Read it aloud. This is for when you can’t tell just by reading in your head. Something feels off, but you don’t know how.
First, grab someone you trust. Someone who knows you, knows that you write, and someone who knows something about writing. Actually, the third requirement is optional. 
Second, take turns reading lines of dialogue. Or each take a character, whatever. Read the dialogue aloud, as if the two of you are having a conversation. You don’t have to read the tags aloud, or you could even act them out. Whatever you need until you (or your friend) can pinpoint what feels off about your dialogue.

That last tip might be a little intimidating. Or maybe you don’t have someone you’d want to read it aloud with. Read them out loud by yourself, if that’s the case.
Whatever it takes, know that you’ve got good dialogue in you, somewhere deep down inside.

Now it’s your turn! What do you do to make your dialogue shine? Leave a comment and share!

Friday, June 5, 2015

Why Outlines Aren't Evil

Last week, I mentioned a post where you’d get to see a picture of my outline. Well, that’s this week’s post:

There, now you’ve seen it. Isn’t it pretty? All the little colors and things.

I’ve not come to really talk about that outline. Yet.
Instead, I’m here to express why I think (and why I think you should think) outlines are good things. Brilliant things. FANTASTIC things, even.

Close your eyes and think back to when you first had to write papers for school. No, not the single paragraph ones, the ones where you had at least three, with maybe an opening and closing paragraph.
Yup, I can see you shuddering from here.
Myself, I took this course called IEW (Institute for Excellence in Writing) in middle school/elementary years. Hated it with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. In fact, it made me loathe anything related to writing. Period.

Besides the painful checklist making sure you had all the right ‘decorations’, the course made you do these ‘step outlines’, which is basically outlining every single sentence. For years after we finally stopped using this curriculum, I couldn’t stand writing, and I wouldn’t be found within ten feet of an outline.

So when you flinched at seeing the title of my post, I empathize with you. I understand. Outlines are scary, scary things.

However, I have discovered they are very useful and widely applicable. I want to focus now on why they’re useful in writing:

First, outlines save time. The outline in the picture above took me roughly three days (maybe two hours a day?) to finish. That’s three days’ worth of writing time that will eventually save me hours and hours. When I start writing that novel (which I should be starting pretty soon), I won’t have to stare at my computer screen wondering what comes next. I already know, and it’s plastered to the wall above my bed to keep me from forgetting.

Second, outlines can be fun. Look at that picture again. It’s a bunch of colorful sticky notes stuck to a pegboard that (previously) held a bunch of weapons1. It’s fun to look at, and makes people who see my room interested in my writing. That’s a plus, in and of itself.

Lastly, outlines help you see the big picture. You have this great idea you want to write and polish and share with the world, but what happens when you don’t know how to get it there? The most common area of a novel in which people sputter to a halt and stop writing is the very middle. It’s commonly accepted as the hardest part to write, and some authors will write the beginning and end first, because they’re the easiest. All the good stuff happens in those parts. An outline, however, will keep that middle part strong, because you know what you want to happen in those dreaded middle chapters.

Creating an outline isn’t hard. In fact, here’s a simple list of tips for making an easy outline:

1. Make it colorful. An outline in black in on white paper (I suggest a hardcopy version rather than a computerized one, because it’s easier to seen everything at once, but it works either way… also easier to shuffle around) will kill you in a heartbeat. So instead of monotones, pick bright colors, like sticky notes or those weird notebooks with colored paper in them.

2. Make it comprehensive. You know all those colors I said you should have? Don’t pick them at random. Be a little OCD (it’s okay, guys, OCD is good for some things, I promise), and designate each color to a specific thing. For instance, I organized my outline by character. Because this project is huge (it’s got six main characters), I assigned each character a color, and used that color whenever the character showed up in a chapter. Then, I used those little skinny ones to indicate when a chapter ended (and wrote the chapter number on it). Maybe you need something like that, or maybe you need bright orange ones for moments when a character dies, and dark red ones for when the villain has his moment of glory, and light blue ones for parts where the mentor shares sage advice.
Whatever you do, make sure it makes sense to you. Oh, and make yourself a little key to stick nearby, in case you forget2.

3. Make two. 
Whoa, now, that’s a lot of work! TWO OUTLINES? That’s ridiculous. 

Well, not really.

Start with what I call a “summary” outline. A simple structure that summarizes what happens when in what order. Sticky notes with one-three sentences saying something like “Taynan is betrayed by the resistance group and deported to Ghine. Ending on ship.” That’s not very clear, but it sums up what I want to happen in this scene (spoiler alert, that’s an actual note in that outline).

Then, maybe even as you’re starting to write, make another outline I call a “step” outline. Take a chapter (chapter one is a good one to start with), and copy your summary outline’s sentences for it. I like using mini notebooks for these sorts of outlines. Then, below these summary sentences, use bullet points to create a list of actions that will get the characters from beginning to end. This still doesn’t have to be super detailed, and you don’t have to outline every sentence. Here’s a sample:
Chapter 19:
“Bea in captivity”
-tries to escape during storm
-makes it out of camp, almost washed out to sea by gale
-saved by bandit, taken back to the camp

It’s just that easy. Thanks to this simple step outline, I have a very clear idea of what’s happening when, and how I get there.

And that’s it. All I got for you.
I could launch into a motivational speech, but I forgot where I put the one for today. Sorry.

What about you? Do you like to outline? How? Leave a comment and share! (no really, I’d love to chat about outlines with you because… outlines)

1yes, I have a pegboard for weapons that’s now holding an outline… but it’s still got a weapon on there, all the same.

2if you’re lucky, no one will notice the key, and will be confused. Then your younger sister will finally piece together how your outline works, only to give you a dumbfounded look when you point out the key. True story.