Do I Really Want to Hurt You?

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1/10/19

The title of this post is not in reference to you, dear reader, but the characters in my stories. Since interesting stories require characters to be in conflict, that means they eventually get hurt. Of course, the hurt could be psychological, but the point of this post is physical hurt.

The Writers Path recently had an interesting post on How to Write an Effective Fight Scene. I found this timely. There is an escape scene coming up in my WIP where I expect an altercation will happen.

For the fight to be effective (or possibly even final for a character?), someone must get hurt. Thinking back to all my short stories, the worst a character has had it is experiencing a cramp. Having had plenty of those, it wasn’t too difficult a task to describe it.

What about more advanced and painful injuries? In 2017, I purchased the ebook version of Hurting Your Characters by Michael J. Carson as part of the 2017 NaNoWriMo Story Bundle. I have not yet made time to read it since hurting people hadn’t come up in my writing. I guess the time is ripe now.

Let me know in the comments how you describe an injury? Do you draw on personal experience? Research testimonials from others who have experienced the same injury? Make it up? (Always a solid option. We are fiction writers after all.)

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Post #52 – Writing Prompts

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12/20/18

Do you use them? Do you shun them?

According to Amazon and a perusal of my local Barnes & Nobel, there are numerous books full of writing prompts. How many would you like? There are books with 300, 400, 642 (oddly specific), and 1000. Or, if you want to go big (because there is no reason to go home), how about a box set of 5000! There are books devoted to just science fiction prompts.  Too limiting? There are books for science fiction and fantasy prompts. Not your thing? There are books with prompts for westerns. Too broad? There is a book with prompts for western romances. Clearly, there is something for everyone.

Don’t want to buy? Searching “writing prompts” in Google returned 183 million hits.  Have at it!

Earlier this year, I came across an interesting take on the writing prompt phenomenon.  A literary publication, The First Line, provides authors with a writing prompt in the form of the first line for every story. As the website puts it, “[e]ach issue contains short stories that stem from a common first line.”

I have mixed feelings about prompts. Part of me feels I shouldn’t need them. I can come up with story ideas on my own, can’t I? That’s ego speaking though. I take story ideas from lots of sources, so why is it cheating to use a supplied prompt?

The other part of me is scared to even look at them for fear I’ll come up with a story idea and feel the pressure to write it. For example, I received an email from The First Line with its list of lines for 2019. Instead of one line per quarter, for the journal’s 20th anniversary, they offer several first lines from past issues for each quarter next year. I made the mistake of clicking through to look at the available prompts. I couldn’t even get through those for the first quarter. After reading almost every first line, a story began to form in my head. I couldn’t take it. I had to look away. I didn’t want all these new stories bouncing around in my head while I’m at work, for starters, and also while I’m still plugging away at the WIP novel.

If I had more time, I might consider going for it and attempt to come up with a story for each first line. Even if several went nowhere, there likely still would be numerous ideas worth fleshing out. Right now, I have plenty to keep me busy. I hope I recall correctly Mike Resnick saying he wrote down story ideas on little pieces of paper, which littered his office. Over the years he accumulated so many, he had no hope of ever writing them all. That’s how I would feel if I attempted this.

I actually wrote a nonfiction piece for The First Line. The market accepts essays discussing the first lines of novels. As soon as I read that, I knew I had to write about the first line in Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. So I did. The essay wasn’t accepted by The First Line, but I was pleased when Page & Spine accepted it. You can read it here. Maybe prompts aren’t so bad after all.

Let me know in the comments how you feel about writing prompts. Love ’em or hate ’em?

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Post #49 – Characters

11/29/18

The essence of any story is characters in conflict. To increase that conflict, or at least make it more interesting, some of those characters need depth.

Most of my writing has been limited to short stories. That form doesn’t provide room to dig much into a character’s background or motivations, at most a couple hints here and there. So when it came time to work on my novel this month, I didn’t have a lot of experience with developing characters. In prior months, I’d jotted down a few notes. This character’s parents died in an accident. This character’s brother saved him when they were kids and has suffered ill effects ever since. But I never fully developed them, probably because I didn’t know how.

I’ve attempted to read up on the subject. A Writer’s Path posted an interesting exercise titled Things I ask My Characters. By way of an interview, the author can get to know his/her character’s. The same blog then posted 3 Ways to Flesh Out Your Character’s Motivations as an additional exercise guide.

For a more classical view, Andrea Lundgren analyzed Victor Hugo’s techniques in Writing Lessons from Les Mis: Characterization.

ProWritingAid has had a series of blog posts this year examining Oscar Scott Card’s Elements of Fiction Writing: Characters & Viewpoint.  The most recent is How to Nail Third-Person Narrative. I found these lessons helpful. This is a book I wanted to read last year when first starting to seriously write, but the book is out of print. Coincidence or fate?

Since I’m new to the novel writing, and thus character development, thing, what I don’t know is what works better for me. Should I develop full backstories for my characters before starting the novel? I am a plotter after all. Or should I come up with a few key points for each character and see what else the story demands these character be? That seems to be more a pantser technique, though it provides the greatest flexibility when writing.

For my current WIP, I’m following the latter course by necessity. I may wind up determining that after the first draft, I need to think through each character again and fill in their stories as I conduct an initial edit.

Let me know in the comments how your develop your characters. Do you map out their entire lives first, or do you wait and let the story dictate who your characters really are?

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Post #44 – Writing Retreats

10/25/18

Are they worth it? Are they comparable or better than writing conferences such as CapClave, which includes small workshops in addition to panel discussions with writers and editors?

And what to choose? A blogger I follow, Luke Tarzian, recently went on a writing cruise. There’s, of course, Clarion West and Odyssey. This Wired article on the Strangely Competitive World of Sci-Fi Writing Workshops was eye opening too.

Then there is Writers of the Future, if you place in the contest. I admit I am skeptical about this contest given L. Ron Hubbard’s history. Based on what I’ve seen online, the contest and retreat appear to be legit.  Also, big names in the speculative fiction realm attend every year and teach during the retreat, but it’s hard to overlook the Scientology connections as reported here and elsewhere.

Nevertheless, I’ve submitted a story every quarter for the last year.  One of my stories got through the first round of judging recently, and I admit I am intrigued by the possibility of spending a week learning the craft. Since I’ve continued to submit a story every quarter, it may still happen eventually, though my conscience is weighing heavily on me these days.

The thing about Writers of the Future is it’s free. Otherwise, I don’t know if I can justify both paying for the retreat and taking the time off from work. One seems manageable. Both seems burdensome.

Maybe it’s an investment I need to make to get better. A couple beta readers have mentioned I’ve noticeably improved since starting out, which was a great ego boost. But I don’t want to plateau. I know I’m far from a good writer, and I want to continue to improve. I’m thinking it’ll be an investment to make when one of the two constraints are lifted, i.e. the retreat is free or I’m retired.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve attended a writers retreat, which one, and what you thought of it.

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Post #35 – Exposition, My Old Nemesis

8/23/18

Like any new writer (and maybe any old writer?), I regularly fall prey to the exposition trap, or info dump. I feel I need to set the stage, so I end up writing paragraph after paragraph, if not page after page, of backstory. My first flash fiction piece was 1000 words of exposition.

Not surprisingly, editors haven’t accepted my stories containing lots of exposition. Benjamin Kinney, an editor at Escape Pod, always provides me with one or two sentences of critique when rejected a story. For two such stories, the critique focused on too much exposition bogging the story down.

When I reviewed those stories again, he wasn’t wrong. One began with four pages of exposition, the other a modest two. I revised this latter story to spread out the exposition. A little at the beginning, a little in the next scene, and then the remainder in a third scene. And the story is better for it.

The story with four pages of exposition is more of a hard sci-fi story, and I’m struggle with how to avoid the info dump. Then I saw this article published by Writers Digest.

First, I’m pleased that others recognize how difficult it is to avoid the info dump in sci-fi. When a writer cannot assume a reader knows certain things about a setting or even a people, more exposition is needed for a reader to understand the where, when, how, and who of a story. That’s the problem faced when writing sci-fi. The story often doesn’t take place in the here and now with the usual suspects. It takes place in the future, on a planet in a distant solar system, inhabited by four-armed aliens.

Second, page after page of exposition used to be the norm. I recall many classic sci-fi stories written this way. I remember entire chapters of exposition, and that didn’t bother me. Apparently, that’s not what readers (or is it just the editors?) want to see now. Readers are writers’ customers. If we don’t satisfy our customers, we don’t get published. So now we writers must be more sophisticated with our exposition.

Remember the flash fiction piece I mentioned above that was all exposition? One beta reader pointed out that issue and suggested I expand the story by telling it from the viewpoint of the antagonist, who was mentioned only in passing. That’s what I did, and I’m pleased with where the story went. I even added to that story, which is part of the novella I planned to submit to Tor earlier this month.  Alas, as noted in Post #34, I didn’t quite nail down the ending to that expanded story; so it remains a work in progress.  Once I do, I believe I’ll have a better novella ready for submission somewhere.

I also began revising the story with four pages of exposition.  I took the paragraphs in those pages and spread them, one or two at a time, throughout other scenes.  I haven’t yet cleaned up the flow of those paragraphs.  Right now they read like someone picked them up from elsewhere and dropped them wherever they landed, which is mostly true.  It’s on my to do list, and once again I believe the story will be better for it.

I have a plan for the next time I write a piece with an intricate backstory or complex setting or characters.  I’ll write out the exposition but keep it to the side.  Then, as I draft the story, I’ll drop in pieces of that exposition as I go.  I did something similar when drafting the sequel to the story with four pages of exposition.  Since I already knew the backstory, I could easily insert that in nuggets as I went along drafting the new story.  This technique made writing the sequel much easier.  I hope the same holds true when drafting a completely new piece.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve struggled with how to handle exposition and how you mastered it (or still are working to master it).

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