ROW80 Update

I was going to include this update in today’s longer post, but decided that topic deserved to be set alone. I’m a fan of evocative writing, even if I’m not too good at it yet, and I’ve wanted to share that for a while. Hope you like it.

But on to the update:

I’m managing to keep myself vaguely on track, having written just shy of 2000 words since Monday. Not too bad at all, I think. More than that, the scene I wrote introduced a character I’ve been waiting to feature: Tobias Osir.

In the original incarnation of the story I’m writing, the plot takes place hundreds of years after the story I’m writing now. There was a long complex backstory I was going to reveal in flashbacks and short “interlude scenes” that would give more information on the mythology of the world. They all featured the Prophet Osir and his quest to reinvigorate the faith of his people in the midst of a devastating war. When I started writing Tapestry this time around, I decided to just write that story. Why hint at it when I can put it front and centre?

Osir is a character I’ve had in my head for a long time, but he’s never really been well defined–precisely because he was in the background. That’s a mistake, of course–background characters of any importance should be fleshed out–but now that he’s one of my main characters, that’s moot. I’m excited to get a chance to know him better, and more than just some esoteric prophet.

The thing that’s surprised me most about Osir is that he’s pretty timid. I generally build characters by having an overall view of their arc, then just writing an introductory scene; I have an idea of where I want to go, but I find I get more colourful characters if I let them develop organically (especially when they do so in relation to other characters). The scene I wrote was between Osir and Alkut, who is trying to overthrow the Empire and start a war–and wants Osir’s help. Osir’s reaction is meek and defensive. This seems like a weak start for him, but I think it will serve his arc well–there’s a lot of room for growth and development.

Tom’s Diner, Evocative Writing, and an Update

Have you even heard the term “earworm?” If not, you’ve experienced it: a song that wriggles its way into your head and makes a home there, unwilling to leave. Like Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega:

It’s one of those songs that just won’t let go. It’s catchy, pithy, and expressive. But what does it have to do with writing?

I was listening to this song the other day, and it struck me that it’s the perfect example of evocative description. I won’t reprint the lyrics here, but you can find them online. I can’t even think of a worthy sample to give here, because anything taken out of the context of the whole is meaningless. Take a look, I’ll wait.

The song seems nonsensical: just a person narrating their (rather dull) day. Until you get to the end of the song, and you realize that she’s sitting in a diner alone because she’s no longer with her significant other. There’s no indication why they broke up, who left who, if infidelity or death  was involved–just that she’s lonely, and misses him. Then the rest of the song makes sense: she hasn’t been narrating her boring day as much as setting the scene for how she’s feeling. Despite not being very long or eventful, the song is enormously effective.

This works because Vega gives you no indication of the plot until the last verses–and even then, there are so many open questions. The whole song is made up of little details that seem so inconsequential it’s easy to gloss over them. But in looking back on them, they set the tone beautifully, and in a better way than simply telling the listener what’s happening.

When writing fiction, evocative description is the way to go. It’s so much more effective than telling the reader point blank that your character is feeling sad or happy or hungry. It’s economical too: Vega’s character has a complex emotional state that’s expressed in just over 200 words. Even better, she does this without having the character speak, or even really do anything beyond putting cream into her coffee. As a writer, you want to make sure you pull the reader into your story, to make them sympathize with your characters. You can do this by handing it to the reader on a silver platter–but that’s boring, and it’s not respectful to a reader who’s able to figure things out for themselves.

Instead, by placing little details in seemingly innocuous places, you create an emotional tapestry that pulls the reader in without them even realizing it. The continuous rain, the woman who doesn’t know she’s being watched as she hikes her skirt, the man behind the counter who doesn’t pay attention to his customer–these are all external indications of how Vega’s character is feeling. They’re metaphors, and very effective ones. And all without the character so much as lifting a finger.

The added benefit here is that you get to create your world in relation to the characters. Vega’s world seems damp, murky, and unfriendly–a perfect compliment to her character’s emotional state. But the same world, as described, can be used to reflect other characters. Maybe the woman hitching her skirt is meeting a lover for a romantic kiss in the rain. Maybe the man behind the counter is inattentive because he’s secretly in love with the woman with the umbrella. When other characters react differently to the world you’re creating, you’re telling the reader even more about them. Again, without those characters doing much of anything.

Here’s an example from the opening of my upcoming release, Court of Sand:

Lamplight flickered, and shadows danced on the wall. Verdant silence filled the halls, and the only movement was the opening of the door to the Empress’s chambers. A dark form slipped out and closed the door behind him with a soft click; Alkut stopped for a moment, listening. Content that he was alone, he sneaked quietly away. He did not notice her son, Ohmel, General  of the Court, watching him.

I think the passage needs some tightening up, but you see what I’ve done here. I could have written bluntly that Alkut was sneaking out of the Empress’ chambers while Ohmel looked on, perhaps even having Ohmel whispering his intent to punish Alkut for the transgression. I could have gone into great detail about how Alkut is having an affair with the newly widowed Empress, that there’s already an underlying tension between him and Ohmel, and that the Empress is an unwitting pawn in a larger plan. But all of that boils down to exposition, and it’s dull. The few lines above tell much the same story, with (I think) a bit more flare. Evocative writing gives a whole new dimension to your work and your characters.

And, frankly, it’s more fun for the writer too.

How to be (in)Visible

Social, by JD Hancock c/o Flikr.

One of the greatest challenges facing an indie author is visibility. Simply put, if nobody out there knows you’re writing, nobody our there will be reading. So how do you become visible?

This is something I’ve been struggling with since I started this journey. I’m by nature a shy person, and I’m not comfortable asking people to buy or try my stuff. I tell myself that I don’t like “imposing myself on others.” This is something I’m slowly getting over, but it’s been a challenge to say the least.

When I started self-publishing, I figured that a few good words and some solid stories would sell themselves; I didn’t care if it took a bit longer, I just thought that it would eventually steamroll under its own power. This, I’ve since learned, is one of the cardinal sins of self-publishing: never assume that your work will sell itself. The biggest reason for this, again, is that nobody knows you’re out there. Even with a lot of concentrated networking and shilling, it can be a challenge to get a large audience; why would they appear out of thin air? This is the best way to become invisible to your market: hope it takes care of itself.

But there are some relatively simple actions you can take to increase your visibility. Here’s three, and they don’t take that much more effort than doing nothing:

Twitter

Social Media is the big one. You should at least have a twitter account: here’s mine. When I started publishing, I had about 40 followers, because nobody except friends and family knew I was on twitter. I still have less than 100, but it’s growing; I’ve hovered around 85 for about a month. I want to grow my twitter audience, because they’re an easy way to distribute information–but the trick is being relevant. Use hashtags, talk about things other writers talk about, and be active. And by active, i don’t just mean tweeting a lot; I mean starting and participating in conversations on twitter. If people know you’re putting some effort into it, they’ll listen.

A few weeks ago, I found myself without a lot of time to catch up on twitter. I’d go a full day before checking twitter or tweeting myself. And I noticed a steady drop off on followers. People were checking their own twitter streams, realizing I wasn’t saying much, and taking me off their lists to make room for others. But as soon as i tweeted a couple useful links or started a conversation, my followers grew. And the more you have, the larger your audience and the more potential for further growth. Ryan Casey has a great post on how to properly use twitter.

Networking

Which leads into the next point: networking. I used to be very bad at this–like I said, shy guy. But in my new job, networking is essential, and I’m learning how to make effective and useful connections. Networking in the indie community is no different–and actually a bit easier.

The thing about networking is that people want to share their experience. They want to help you out, and they want you to help them in return. In the indie writing community especially, people out there are chomping at the bit to make you the best writer you can be–and it’s only fair to give back.

The first thing any indie writer should do is start creating a network of friends–fellow writers–who can help. You shouldn’t actively ask them to promote your work or teach you how to edit; that will come naturally if you cultivate the relationship. But even just a few people will help you immensely. They’ll give you writing advice. They’ll re-tweet your tweets. They’ll link to your blog. And in all likelihood, they’ve got a larger platform than you right now: everything they share of yours is going directly to their audience. And that audience, properly cultivated, can also become yours.

That’s the great thing about the indie community: there’s no finite market. Writers aren’t competing with each other as much as they seem to in the “professional” world. My readers can be yours as well, and that overlap is far from harmful (as thought in some capitalistic ventures); it’s actually helpful. Because it all helps spread the word of what the indie writer’s community is doing: revolutionizing the publishing industry.

How do you get a network? I started by following people on twitter whose work I enjoyed reading. Get in touch with the author, tell them you like their book. Ask them questions. Talk to them about things other than writing. My own network is small so far–I’m only just cluing into all these tips–but it’s growing. And the larger the network, the more people who are out there to help you when you need support, encouragement, or advice.

Outside Promotion

This one was scary for me. Not to beat a dead horse, but I don’t like asking people for things. It makes me uncomfortable to thing I’m requesting a favor, or asking them to do something they may not want to do. But you know what? It’s not that hard. And most people in this community are not only willing to help promote your work, they’re eager to do it.

That’s not to say you should spam indie writers with requests until someone complies. That’ll get you blacklisted. But there are a few simple places to start.

One I’d recommend is The Book Designer, by Joel Friedlander. He’s a designer, but has tons of useful information about self publishing. He also runs two monthly features that help writers promote: the eBook Cover Awards and the Carnival of the Indies. There’s no cash prizes or anything like that–this is much more valuable. Joel has over 17,000 followers on twitter, and I can imagine there’s many more who frequently read his blog; and when you’re in one of these features, your name (and blog) are sent out to all of them. I’ve been featured in both this month, and have experienced a significant amount of traffic because of it. Definitely check it out.

There’s also a Round of Words in 80 Days. I talk about them often, so I won’t go into length here: just follow the link if you’re interested. Suffice it to say, it’s your own community within the writer’s community, which helps people set and achieve writing goals. If you sign up, you’ll be invited to post a link to your check in blogs twice a week, and these links are promoted to others in the collective. It’s win-win.

The last thing I’ll mention about outside promotion is that if you give, people will give back. I’ve noticed that when I re-tweet someone’s book link or blog post, they’ll often re-tweet that to their followers–which means that all their followers can now see me. Share and share alike; that’s how this community works. It feeds upon itself, but isn’t diminished by that–it’s made stronger.

Now, of course, the next step for me is to translate this growth into sales. I haven’t had the chance to update my site to include links to my books–which is really a glaring oversight. I’ll get on that soon. In the meantime, my platform is growing, and now that I’ve got some tricks up my sleeve, it’ll keep growing at a decent pace. And really, it wasn’t that difficult to start.

Do you have any tips and tricks about increasing your visibility? I’d love to hear them in the comments!

 

Chipping Away At The Stone: ROW80 Update

Well, I’ve managed to follow my own advice, and set out to make some time to writ. I didn’t make a huge amount of progress since Wednesday–835 words–but it’s a start. I’m chipping away at the stone: piece by piece, I’ll carve out this story. I wonder at my self imposed deadlines and goals, though. I was expecting to finish writing Court of Rain by November 15; with one story out of four completed in rough draft, I’m well overdue.

I want to remind myself that part of the reason I’m behind is the restructuring of the narrative I’ve been doing. In trying to resolve the issues brought up in an earlier post, I’ve killed off one character, changed the motivations and characterizations of a second, and added a third (who is turning out to be a major one). I’ve also re-written an entire scene featuring this new character, effectively redoing 2000 words instead of writing a new scene and putting me ahead.

So I can’t be too hard on myself. Part of the beauty of ROW80 is that the goals are explicitly mutable. They allow for unforeseen circumstances and change. I just have to be careful not to rely on that and turn it into an excuse to fall even further behind. Now that my major restructuring is done (I hope) I can charge forward and write the rest of Court of Rain. I’ll aim for mid-December to finish another 6000 words, which shouldn’t be a problem if I keep myself accountable. Wish me luck!

 

Not Enough Hours and a late update

Time by Alan Cleaver, c/o Flikr

You’ll notice, of course, that I missed my Wednesday post. Well, maybe missed is a bit harsh–I’m writing it a bit late, that’s all. I wanted to talk about characters this week in my Writing Wednesday, but my lateness has inspired me to write about something else: the issue of finding the time to write.

My update for ROW80 today is, sadly, not very exciting. I haven’t gotten much accomplished this week beyond daydreaming about my plot and characters, and one could hardly call that progress. I didn’t even come to any epiphanies that will affect the story; really the only decision I made was that one of my main characters loves licorice root. No word count.

Since I signed up for ROW80, I’ve tried to keep myself accountable, and get frustrated with myself when I don’t have much to report. But then I sat back and thought about why I didn’t have much to report. I haven’t been exactly idle; I’ve been very busy with work the past month, and worked several evenings in the past two weeks. More evenings are on the horizon. Who has the time to write?

And there’s the rub: there aren’t enough hours in the day. I still have to sleep, eat, and walk the dogs, not to mention spending quality time with my wife and family. People have this image of a writer as someone who holes themselves up at a desk and pours over the keys for hours on end. Anyone reading this blog knows that’s not how it works. Sometimes, you’re lucky to get 250 words down.

Which all got me to thinking about two main points I want to address today:

Excuses

They’re so easy. I couldn’t write today because I slept in. I’m just not inspired today. It’s Thanksgiving or (for our Canadian readers) Grey Cup. See my excuse above: I’m working at my real job.

Except those excuses and others like it don’t accomplish anything. They just point a finger at the problem, and attempt to absolve you of your own guilt. I do this all the time, so I’m not exempt: making excuses makes me feel better when I fall behind. The problem is that excuses are intangible. They’re just words, and they won’t help you get back in the saddle, or any further ahead. They’re completely arbitrary, and often don’t have anything to do with why you actually didn’t write.

Of course, that’s not to say excuses aren’t occasionally valid. A family emergency certainly applies. Work is a good one too: if you’re not making a living off your writing, you have to pay the bills somehow. That, and family, need to come first. The trick is to know the difference between these valid excuses and ones that just give you a pass–the ones that don’t do anything for your half finished book. Which leads into point two…

Finding the Time

This is probably the most common excuse; for me, anyway. I just didn’t have time to write this week. This is what I’ve been telling myself since mid-November. It’s a potent excuse, and very easy to justify. The problem is, it’s complete bunk.

I used to work a job that was mostly evenings and weekends. I’ve also wanted to take Tai Chi classes for a long time. Once, I lamented to my wife that I’d really love to take a class–you just don’t learn the same from a book or DVD–but that I didn’t have any time to commit to it. She told me flat out that finding the time wasn’t the issue at all. I wasn’t making the time. Wise woman.

Finding the time is a ridiculous notion in the first place. There’s time everywhere. It’s not like you get more or less allotted you in a day: it’s always 24 hours. What matters is how you manage that time. It’s all about priorities. You have a given amount of time each day for recreation or personal use; it may be more or less depending on what’s going on, but you’ll have it. You just need to use it wisely. Instead of lamenting that I didn’t have the time to take Tai Chi because I worked evenings, I could have been looking for daytime classes, finding a private tutor, or finding a class close enough to work that I could pop in on my dinner hour.

It’s the same with writing. You don’t need to find the time to write, you need to make the time to write. If you have a busy week, that’s fine, but make sure you set aside some of your off time to pound out a few words. Every bit helps, and if you’re consistent with this demand on your own time, you’ll get where you need to go. Just don’t let excuses get in your way.

Now, let’s see if I can follow my own advice… 🙂

Scrivener Templates

Scrivener Templates: making creating easier.

I don’t have a whole lot of time today to post, but in the interest of keeping my schedule, I promised myself I’d write something. So I’ve got a quick idea I’ve wanted to talk about for a while, but never found the right space for it: Scrivener Templates.

If you’re not using Scrivener for your writing, check it out. It’s amazing. It’s basically a more powerful version of your word processor–not only can you write in it, it will help you organize your thoughts, plot out your story, and convert everything into a manuscript or eBook at the end. It’s an extremely versatile program.

One of the things I like most about Scrivener is the way it helps you organize your work. Whether you’re writing a short story or a trilogy of novels, Scrivener can help you keep everything in one place. Along the left side of the program is the Binder, a collection of collapsible folders which is the backbone of your project. You have your manuscript (divided into scenes), notes for characters and places, and all your research.

 

Binder Closeup

What I want to touch on today is the Templates. At the bottom of your binder is a folder that has some templates. You can right click to duplicate one, and save it as a character or place. Then, just fill in the details and you have a succinct sketch of your characters and places. Easy.

I used to write as I went–by which I mean I let my characters develop as I wrote, without having decided ahead of time too much about them. This still works for me to a point–I love being surprised when my characters do something I didn’t plan for–but for the most part, you want to have all of that laid out in front of you when you’re starting a new project. It’s fine to have a general idea, but the deeper your characters are when you start writing, the easier you’ll find it to create three dimensional characters. And, to use an old writer’s cliche, places should be characters in your stories too–so treat them the same way.

Here I’ve filled out the template with the basics for Ahbinzur, one of my main characters. She’s a complex one, so I definitely wanted to have something down before I wrote too much of her. As you can see, the template is pretty straight forward: give the name, a physical description, personality traits, and so on. Something I found really helpful was an entry on Internal and External conflicts, one of the most important ways to make a fully fleshed out character. The things the template asks you to think about seem redundant–why should I have to write down what she looks like? I already know that–but they’re also easy to miss.

Doing a Place template is much the same. Far beyond what the setting looks like, you’ll think about what the sights, sounds and smells are, any special features you want to include, an so on. Getting it all out on paper makes inventing a living, breathing setting so much simpler.

Well, there you are. It’s a simple tool–really, it’s nothing more than a form you’re filling out–but oh so important. Something like this should go without saying, but missing these details will squash your book flatter than pancake–so hy not take advantage of it? As usual, Scrivener is taking the guesswork out of your project for you–all you have to do is hammer out the details, then sit back and write.

 

Indie Review: Star Drake

Star Drake, by J. M. Ney-Grimm

As per my new schedule, I won’t always be posting on Fridays any longer–but when I do, it’ll be for a review of an indie work, or an interview with an indie author. Today I’m reviewing a great little story (or pair of stories) by fellow Indie J. M. Ney-Grimm: Star Drake.

J. M. Ney-Grimm writes in a unique–or at least uncommon–genre: Nordic mythology. I’ve enjoyed Norse myths since I was a child, and although these stories don’t involve the familiar Germanic gods and themes, they have a similar feel. When you’re immersed in this world, you’re thinking of trolls, giants, hairy dwarves and buxom women. Okay, maybe not that last part–no Wagner here–but you get the idea. It’s a very particular brand of fantasy, but a refreshing one. Your main elements are present–magic, monsters, and heroism–but it’s somehow more down to earth. I’d say it’s almost “Tolkienesque” in that the stories feel like they’re happening on the Earth we know, but long before our recorded history.

Star Drake features three stories woven together. Gefnen the troll warden searches for a meal for his master; Laidir the zephyr searches for his dear friend Geal, the rainbow; and the sea-lord Emrys and company protect a young boy. It seems complicated at first as the stories ebb and flow, and sometimes each thread only gets a few paragraph’s attention. But before you get twenty pages in, the threads begin to coalesce–or at least hint at doing so–and you see how they’re all inter-related. And this is where the magic of the story comes alive; this isn’t a case where you have a main plot and two subplots. Each thread is dependent upon the others, and they support each other nicely. To explain more would give away too much, so I’ll leave it at that.

The thing that struck me most about this story was the tone. After having read another of Ney-Grimm’s stories, Troll Magic, I was expecting a fairy tale like story with a lighthearted feel. Not so for Star Drake: this one has a deep sense of importance to it, of destiny. It’s still written very much in a storyteller’s fashion, and you can easily imagine it being told around a campfire somewhere in the snows of the North, but it has a satisfying sort of weight to it. At the same time, it has a very dreamy feel to it. The style of writing is hard to describe–I’ve been trying to do so since I read it last week, and still can’t find the right words. The closest I can get is ephemeral. It has an extremely poetic cadence to it, and the words drift across the page like a layer of gauze draped over someone’s shoulder. You get the impression that, while the words are poetic and lilting, the tone belies extraordinarily high stakes.

And that’s not to say that the stakes aren’t explored; there’s a good deal of action in the book’s 60 pages. The way Ney-Grimm’s characters use magic is certainly interesting, and a scene between Emrys and his friends fighting Gefnen is particularly satisfying. I’d like to have seen it explained a bit more, though; it seems to be elemental in nature, but it’s hinted that there are different levels of magic. I got the feeling that there was an underlying structure to it, but one that wasn’t shared with the reader.

And this is the only real criticism I have for this story. The world it’s set in is vibrant and unique, but it seems taken for granted that the reader will relate to it. I don’t know a lot of the mythology of the Nordic region, and while it’s similar enough to the Norse myths I’m familiar with that I can make educated guesses, it’s different enough that I was sometimes left wondering. Things like the relationship between Laidir and Geal are not explained, and I was confused at to who Gefnen’s master was, and why he was hunting at his command. I’m still unsure as to the significance of the titular creature. Ney-Grimm included a helpful guide to characters in her novel Troll Magic; something similar would be useful here.

Fortunately, many of my questions were answered by the accompanying story, Rainbow’s Lodestone, which follows at the end of the book. I would actually recommend readers look at this story before Star Drake, as it helps set up that story, and serves as some excellent background. On the other hand, it does reveal certain plot points that could be considered spoilers for Star Drake, so I’m a bit on the fence as to which one should be read first. At the very least, I’d tell readers to read them both in one sitting, in whatever order. They compliment each other very well.

Rainbow’s Lodestone concerns…well, I don’t want to give away the spoilers I mentioned, so I’ll just say it could almost be a prequel to Star Drake. It has a different tone entirely than the preceeding story, and it’s a testament to Ney-Grimm’s talent that she makes the transition so smoothly. This story is more lighthearted–much closer in tone to Troll’s Belt–and has an almost “childhood bed time story” feel to it. Despite the fact that it deals with a grim act of mischief, it’s a delightful read. This reminded me a bit more of the Germanic myths I know, so it was easier for me to relate to this story. The enchanting thing about it is the personification of the Rainbow, and the general attitude she has towards her fate in the story. There’s a nice underlying moral here.

All in all, these are wonderful stories and definitely worth a read. Ney-Grimm’s unique blend of Nordic fantasy and fairy tale mentality is a refreshing take on the genre, and the poetic style of writing (whichever tone she uses) adds a special sheen to the work. I read a lot of fiction, and I can honestly say I’ve not come across anything quite like this. Fortunately, Ney-Grimm has a respectable body of work, so there’s more to explore!

You can find Star Drake at Kobo and Amazon; if you’re interested in Rainbow’s Lodestone separately, it’s available in both stores as well. You can find the author J. M. Ney-Grimm at Goodreads and on twitter. Finally, if you’ve been following my blog you may remember a couple posts I did on cover design–much of what I learned there was thanks to a post of J. M. Ney-Grimm’s own blog.

Three Pillars of Fiction, and ROW80 Update

image by troismarteaux c/o Flikr

This has been a wonderfully productive week. This time last week, I was stumbling around trying to figure out why my characters were misbehaving–now I’ve got a clear(er) vision of what they’re up to, and I’ve set aside the scaffolding behind the book to settle on the actual writing. I’m pleased to say that I’ve managed 2242 words in total since Sunday’s update. This means I’ve finished the re-write of my Knight of Sand scene (with a new character!) and have half finished Queen of Rain, the first scene in the second story. With luck, I’ll have that finished by tomorrow and will be well on the way toward finishing Court of Rain by the end of next week.

All this work last week on the structure of my book got me to thinking about how fiction is, well, structured. So I thought I’d share something today that I’ve long thought at the core of a good novel or story: the Three Pillars of Fiction.

These aren’t by any means the be-all and end-all of writing fiction, but I think they’re a pretty well distilled group. I don’t think you can write a story without them–and if anyone knows of an example, I’d love to read it! I think all three are necessary, too–you can’t have one without the other. They’re like a tripod holding a brazier: knock one leg down and the others will topple, spilling embers and setting fire to the whole temple.

Anyway, in no particular order:

Description

This is the meat of your story, and has always been my favourite part to write. One of the most quoted adages of writing is “show, don’t tell,” and that’s what description is all about. This can be done well, or very poorly, and how it’s handled will give the reader a very strong image of the book as a whole either way. If you have some great descriptions, it can bring a reader into the World of your book like no other way can–but if your descriptions are tepid, cliched, or dull, they’ll just want to put it down.

This, I think, is where the book really comes alive. In a way, description is where you as an author get to whisper in your reader’s ear. You set up the tone and the feel of the story for them, lead them through it. When I’m writing description, I often think of my background in the theatre–it’s like directing a play. You have a particular image you want to portray, and it’s up to you to decide how you’re going to show it to your reader. The best part is that, done right, this pillar isn’t all that difficult–the secret is in allowing the reader some leeway with their own imagination. They’ll fill in more detail than you could ever conceivably put down into words, and make your descriptions stand out with as much vibrancy as they like.

Exposition

Anyone can have a character tell the backstory, but doing so in a compelling and informative way is not easy at all. The trap here is falling into a lecture. The last thing a reader wants is a five page history lesson about the background of your main character–even if it’s crucial to the plot. Exposition should be used like salt: a little dash here and there.

There’s an excellent article about this here. Roz Morris says it as succinctly as anyone could: “The only sin of exposition is that it is unnatural.” Exposition–as required as it is in some form–just seems jarring when it’s not done well. Would you enjoy a movie where the main character took ten minutes of screen time speaking directly to the audience trying to explain the story? No. In fact, having a character take the time to explicitly explain the story is a tell-tale sign that you’re not trusting your reader. You don’t have to beat them over the head with it, they’ll figure it out. And if they don’t, maybe your writing is too obscure in the first place.

On the other hand, exposition is very important for any story. Any reader is going to ask “why should I care?” when they first pick up a book. What drives them to want to read it? What’s it’s about? You have to get that across somehow. The trick is doing it subtly enough that your reader doesn’t realize it’s happening. Morris shows a great example from Orwell’s 1984 in the link above. To use another theatre analogy, one of the best ways to inexpensively build a set is to use Indicative Props: items you put on stage to hint that you’re in a particular place. A couple trees shows you’re in a forest, a scarecrow and sheaf of corn shows you’re in a field–you don’t need a whole painted backdrop. Writing is the same: sprinkle hints here and there, and you’ll get some nice “Indicative Exposition” to coin a phrase.

Another of my favourite techniques (though I’m not too good at it myself) is The Watson. This is a character who exists to ask the same questions the readers need to ask to get involved in the story. The Watson might be a major character or a narrator, and have other reasons for being there–but part of their purpose is to get the reader to identify with them. Effectively, the reader experiences the exposition vicariously through the Watson’s eyes.

Dialogue

This, for many people, is the big one. Honestly, I hate dialogue–I don’t think I’m very good at it, which is precisely the reason I don’t write stage plays. Dialogue has a lot of small factors you need to get right before it sounds real: accent, colloquialisms, tone, phrasing. And so on. It’s like maintaining a large machine without knowing how all the individual parts fit together.

For me, the hard part about dialogue is getting characters to sound different from one another. I’m not expert, but I think the trick in this case is to do character sketches. The way a character talks should reflect their character as a person. Someone who’s been brought up with a silver spoon in their mouth probably won’t swear as much as the dock worker who needs to bust his hump ten hours a day to feed his family. If you have a well fleshed out character, dialogue is a bit easier to write.

I think the most important thing to consider about dialogue is how it reads. That might sound redundant, so let’s rephrase it: you should hear how it sounds out loud. Read your dialogue as if you were reading a script. Have a friend read the other part, and have an actual conversation. If it sounds stilted or forced, re-do it. If it doesn’t sound like people talking, it’s not good enough. Dialogue that sounds unnatural sticks out on the page like a sore thumb, and it’s another easy turn off for a reader. On the other hand, if it reads like people talk, it’s easy for the reader to follow along–and more importantly, to connect with the characters.

 

Well, there we have it. Three Pillars of Fiction–do you have more to suggest? I’d love to hear your comments below!

Scrivener on the Go

Scrivener

Scrivener: A great program just got better!

Last week, I mentioned that I was learning to use OneNote, and trying to find a convenient way to sync between computers. I’ll tell what I found below, but first, I want to talk about a happy accident I had along the way.

I discovered you can run Scrivener off a USB drive.

Now, I work a regular 9-5 job, and between that and family life,my typical writing time is usually Saturday and Sunday mornings. But I also get to work about an hour before my workday starts, so I’ve taken to writing or researching in the morning. This is great, except that I don’t have access to Scrivener at my work computer and doubt I could convince IT it’s a necessary program for my job.

So I’ve been using a combination of Sugarsync and/or Google Drive, both of which I’ve used in the past with great effect. But it’s an extra step: when I get home, I have to copy and paste my work into Scrivener. And when things get really busy at work, I sometimes forget to do this and end up with contrasting versions on both machines. Not efficient.

So in researching how to update OneNote conveniently, I found out that you can run Scrivener from a flash drive. You can actually install the program onto the drive, though the Literature and Latte folks (creators of the program) don’t recommend it because flash drives are generally slower than PCs. Instead, they suggest installing to your computer as normal, then copying your files over to the USB through explorer. Though I don’t use a Mac, I’m sure there’s a similar procedure.

Once you do this, you can open your Scrivener files on another machine through the USB stick. Voila: I can now use Scrivener on my off time at work!

A caveat: when you plug your USB into another computer and start the program, you’ll be asked to enter a registration number or use the trial version, even if you’ve already purchased it. This is only because Scrivener verifies your license through the ‘net, and the new computer won’t be registered.

Fortunately, the Scrivener license allows you to use the program on up to 10 machines (as stated on their Technical Support page), so all you need to do is input your registration number again and you’re good to go. If you don’t have your number (it’s not accessible through the program), you can go here to have it retrieved for you.

I’ve raved about Scrivener before–if you’re a serious writer, it’s one program you shouldn’t do without–but I really have to say that it keeps impressing me. This is an excellent tool for writers, and with this revelation, it just got a whole lot better.

OneNote

Now to OneNote. This is less of an issue for me now–the reason I was using it for gathering research was because I couldn’t use Scrivener on my computer at work. Now that’s moot–but it’s still a useful program.

OneNote 2010–which I have on my home computer–has a nifty feature where you can synchronize your workbook to Microsoft Skydrive, which will then synchronize it to your other computers. As long as they also have OneNote 2010.

At work, I have 2007, so this isn’t an option. I’ve had trouble syncing the notebook between the two computers, and it’s getting a bit cumbersome. It’s a tad disappointing that the 2010 file can’t open in 2007, and can’t convert without additional software–after all, Word 2010 can be opened in an earlier version. The best I can seem to do is save my pages individually in 2007 format (I can’t seem to save the whole notebook in 2007), then open them on my work PC from there. It’s not nearly as streamlined as it really should be for a program whose whole purpose is to make and share notes, but maybe I’m missing something. If anyone has any tips to share, please leave them in the comments!

Ultimately, as I’ve said, this is now moot. If I can use Scrivener to compile my research from both machines, it’s simpler than using two different programs. OneNote still has its benefits, but I’m not sure I’ll continue using it for my projects. Sorry Microsoft–another case of a Mac product winning out!

Back in the Saddle–plus, New Schedule and ROW80 Update

Around of Words in 80 Days

A Round of Words in 80 Days

Well, after more than a week of writer’s block and general lassitude, I’ve been able to jump back into it and actually write. Research, plotting and organization is important, mind you, but I feel like I haven’t accomplished much tangible work in the last while. But I’m happy to say that in the last few days I managed to hammer out 1,153 words.

Okay, so it doesn’t sound like much spread over the three days since Wednesday’s update–but it’s a start. And a good one, considering that each of the scenes in my project–of which there are sixteen in total–are supposed to be around 2000 words. So, half done one new scene = not too bad. The unfortunate thing is that this is a new scene I’m writing to replace on that wasn’t working, so in a sense, it’s backtracking. But, it’s better for the overall story, so there you go. Perhaps I can salvage some of the replaced scene for something else.

I also have some news to share. If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I originally set out to write a new post for every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. And you also know that for the past couple weeks, I haven’t managed a Friday post. This is a combination of work ramping up, trying to focus on writing my story rather than blog posts, and generally not having a topic to write about.

But on the advice of Duolit, I’ve decided to concentrate my efforts for this blog into certain areas. This will help me keep to a more regular schedule, and also help me figure out what exactly I want to say on this blog.Which, in turn, I hope will make it more interesting for you guys! So, I’ve come up with a new schedule:

  • On Mondays, I’ll blog about publishing. This may include articles about cover creation, how Kobo/Amazon works, formatting, or general indie publishing topics. This is the bare bones of self-publishing.
  • On Wednesdays I have an update with ROW80, so it’s a good time to do an article on Writing. This will be the meat of what we do; topics will cover things like character arcs, plotting, world building, and what makes good fiction.
  • On Fridays I’ll feature other indie authors with two semi-regular features: Indie Reviews and Indie Interviews. This won’t happen every week, but I’ll offer them as often as I can. This gives me some flexibility in my schedule while doing something that gives back to the indie community at large–showcasing other people’s work. There’s a lot of it out there, so there’s plenty of potential in this feature. I’m going to aim for at least two of these posts a month.
  • And on Sunday I have another ROW80 check-in. These posts won’t be very long, and will be more for keeping me accountable to my schedule. On Sundays I may also post news about this blog, or important topics that come up outside the topics listed above. Lie Fridays, this may not happen every week, but with a smaller post it shouldn’t be a problem.

So there we have it–a new schedule, and some concrete topics to look forward to each week. Enjoy–and as always, feedback is appreciated!