Note from Cassandra: It brings me great pleasure to introduce Sonya Clark today. Her debut fantasy novel ‘Bring on the Night’ is available from Lyrical Press. Thanks Sonya for hosting me on your blog today and thanks for sharing your thoughts today on your writing process. Hope you all enjoy this fantastic post and then jump on over to Sonya’s blog to check out my interview.
My writing process tends to be inconsistent and chaotic. Sometimes I outline, frequently I fly by the seat of my pants. Sometimes I start with a character, other times a plot or situation. Sometimes the words come quickly and I’m riding the rapids without a kayak. Sometimes I’m dragging a story, heavy and manacled to my body in rusty chains, across the desert Ray Bradbury called Dry Spell, Arizona. Hopefully one day I’ll figure out a sure-fire method to consistent writing.
One thing I have learned is how to start the actual narrative. I write urban fantasy, an action-heavy genre to be sure, but I think this could work for just about any genre. When I first started writing I made the newbie mistake of starting with set-up and background. I thought I needed that to set the stage, so to speak. I didn’t realize what I was doing was the dreaded info dump. I had a manuscript I was unhappy with. Well, I was happy with the manuscript but the beginning was seriously lacking. It was way too low-key and did a poor job of introducing my main character, a vampire named Jessie. One thing I tend to do when I’m having trouble with a manuscript is take a detour, write a short story or flash fiction about a character or two. It helps me learn about the characters and I’ve found it’s a good way to get past a block in the main work. So I did this with Jessie, and liked what I came up with so much I used it as the beginning of Bring On The Night. Rather than tell what she was all about, this showed it. From that experience I learned to always start with action. Find a way to introduce your main character that shows what they’re all about, and fill in the background details later.
Here’s an excerpt from that opening scene:
“Or are you one of those guys who want to take what you want, but you don’t want to put
the hurt on? Huh? You too tender-hearted to listen to some poor girl scream and cry and beg for
“But that’s not how I roll.” She laced the fingers of one hand in his hair and pulled his head
back sharply, black eyes boring into his. “I like to put the hurt on, and I want you to remember
every second of it when you wake up.” She leaned closer, close enough he should have been able
to feel her breath on his face. “If you wake up and you go looking for more girls to drug, you might want to think of tonight as a cautionary tale.”
She opened her mouth. He watched in horror as two teeth began to elongate into sharp,
curved fangs. He began to scream as she lowered her mouth to his neck, struggling in vain to free himself. Her fangs sank into his flesh like hot knives, ripping and tearing as she jerked her head. The blood began to flow, followed by the echo of his screams.
I was recently visiting Nancy Kelly Allen’s blog and found some excellent advice on critiquing a manuscript. I must admit however, I was drawn to Nancy’s advice on the main character.
Is the main character active in carrying the plot forward? The main character should be responsible for solving the problem or reaching the goal. Uncle Hamm or an older brother should not step in and save the character that is experiencing the trouble.
This advice I have heard before. I don’t recall which blog I read it on but the author explained that the problem with book 6 or the Harry Potter series was that Harry was spending all of his time trying to win a sporting trophy rather than trying to solve any of his problems. In point of fact, Dumbledore deliberately kept Harry in the dark about what most of those problems were which meant that the reader was cheated out of a possibly more interesting story than the one we were delivered.
The fact that I’ve heard this advice before didn’t stop me from sitting and going ‘oh’. Mostly because it is one of thousands of things that when you think about it should be obvious but sometimes when you are looking at a draft completely eludes you until someone else points it out. It helps to be reminded, often, and it is a really important point.
Linking back to Harry Potter, one of my biggest problems with the series was that Harry was given the starring role in the first book but was almost the least interesting character in it. Hermione solved most of the problems while Ron randomly ran into things that may have helped and occasionally Harry would do something pretty stupid that turned out to be good. Harsh, but at the time that was how I saw it. The second book in the series was even worse as far as establishing Harry as the hero. Even in a coma Hermione was more useful than Harry turned out to be. She gave him the vital clue that made everything in the conclusion possible.
I actually do like the Harry Potter books and I’m not pulling them to pieces, just the main character who was always a little underwhelming to me.
Thanks Nancy for reminding us of this excellent advice.
What is the best advice you’ve been given about character recently?
I recently cam across this website (The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam) and had a lot of fun reading some of these questions. The exam is supposedly set up to determine whether or not your fantasy novel is actually original and the instructions say that if you answer yes to any one question then you should abandon the novel immediately. Now when question four is:
Is your story about a young character who comes of age, gains great power, and defeats the supreme badguy?
This doesn’t leave a lot of room for the vast majority of fantasy stories and so while the quiz does reveal some of the more cliche parts of the genre I don’t think anyone should be taking the instructions overly seriously. We all know that there are very few ‘new’ ideas out there. That said I think most of us can agree that if you answer yes to the following maybe you are going to have to work really hard to make it sound fresh:
Is the evil supreme badguy secretly the father of your main character?
How about “a wise, mystical sage who refuses to give away plot details for his own personal, mysterious reasons”?
Does your story involve a number of different races, each of which has exactly one country, one ruler, and one religion?
What I found really fun was trying to think of at least five books I have read that the question would apply to. It actually was a lot of fun though there are a few cheap shots taken at Robert Jordon throughout as well as RPG’s which aren’t necessarily a bad thing though probably shouldn’t be used to plan the plots of novels.
So here’s the challenge for the fantasy lovers out there. Pick a question, any question from the list, and see if you can think of at least five novels that it applies to.
You hear the advice all the time. If something isn’t moving your plot forward it shouldn’t be in your story. Given the current goal oriented generation where anything that isn’t immediate becomes dull, this is pretty good advice. Your description of that sunset may be absolutely flawless but if your reader can’t see the point of it (because just being a beautiful piece of writing is insufficient) then it has to go.
I’m in two minds about this. On the one hand, I hate wading through endless reams of description of settings that in the end don’t make the tiniest bit of difference to the story. Even a fight sequence that has gone on too long begins to irk me and I just want to cut to the chase. So who won and what happens next? I am very much a product of the modern world in that I like there to be a point. At the same time, sometimes I really enjoy just well written work. That witty dialogue or really interesting aside. It may have nothing to do with the main plot and only be very thinly related to character development but if it is written just right, it can suck me right into the story.
That said, how do we move the plot forward?
Plot generally involves a character (or group or characters) getting from point A to point B while X, Y and Z try to stop them. That would be the motivation for the characters and the conflict they will face. If the plot becomes too direct you would have a story in about five lines and it would be incredibly boring.
Farm boy loses family.
Farm boy trains to fight.
Farm boy faces bad guy and loses.
Farm boy takes time out to learn some valuable lesson.
Farm boy defeats bad guy.
This would be the basic plot of both Star Wars and Eragon and probably many other fantasy – space opera kind of things. Don’t get me wrong, this plot works very effectively (or can), but when you boil the story down this much it gets a bit dull.
I guess the question you have to ask yourself is why does line A (farm boy losing family) lead to line B. Lots of people lose family members without suddenly enlisting to learn some ancient fighting method and going on a quest for revenge and to other throw an evil empire. What about your character makes them take that step and how do they reach that decision? How do you help your reader believe it?
The plot moves forward when you know where you are and where you want to go and you know why your characters are taking those steps. I’ve had many would be stories stagnate because I didn’t know clearly where I was planning to go next and I wasn’t really sure why my characters were doing something anyway. Once you can answer these questions the plot should move forward though it is adding all the small details and weaving those interesting sub-plots that will make it interesting.
Your thoughts on moving a plot forward?
I was visiting Elizabeth Spann Craig’s very amazing blog when she posted a list of links that she’d posted on twitter. One of the many links that caught my eye was a link to the blog Novel Journey where Robert Liparulo was sharing his 5 tips for making fantasy fiction feel real. As an avid reader of fantasy fiction and a writer of it, I found this a fascinating read.
More importantly, his number one tip, I thought was possibly the best bit of advice that could be given on this topic. So, his number one tip for making fantasy feel real:
Characters who feel. The way to a reader’s heart is through a story’s characters. Doesn’t matter if they’re fighting dragons or stepping into the Roman Colosseum during a gladiator fight, a character has to experience fear and courage, love and heartbreak, blood, sweat and tears—all of it realistically rendered in a way the reader understands.
As I said, I’ve read a lot of fantasy and as a reader I know this to be true. The world can be beautifully structured and described but unless the characters feel real the story just isn’t going to work. And it is the way that characters react to situations that make them feel real. Stories where the characters shrug off weird thing after weird thing are really hard to connect to because you want the character to look closer at something and they don’t, and you want them to ask the right question, and they won’t. It makes it hard as a reader to really get into the story.
Thanks Elizabeth for sharing this link and thanks to Robert Liparulo for sharing some great advice with us all.
The title of this post Not just a fond memory of David Bowie as the Goblin King in Labyrinth – though if you want a trip down memory lane you can watch the Goblin King himself in action and you may never eat peaches again. Though I do want to know how he did that thing with the glass balls. I know I tried this as a kid (with tennis balls) with zero success, than again, I can’t juggle either.
The title of the post is actually referring to character creation and how it is easy for characters to be strong and amazing when things are going well but would they actually cope with the situations they get thrown into.
If you read an older style action novel then the hero, stepping from mundane life to saving the world, will simply shrug off any number of attacks and set backs and continue to plow forward with reckless abandon, possibly having one touching loss of confidence scene. These characters don’t come off as realistic though they work because these stories are simply about the action and that’s all they ever claimed to be.
Far more realistic is the character that ends up catatonic after their world gets torn apart around them but that isn’t particularly interesting either and can kind of leave your story high and dry if your protagonist goes on a mental holiday for half the book.
So what does your character do as their world falls down?
Are they helping it along? Do they follow Sarah’s example (back to Labyrinth) here and smash the walls apart and give no heed to the possible consequence because it is worse to stay where you are? Do they run and hide and need someone or something to help them find their way again? Do they take advantage of the wreckage?
How does your character deal with the world falling down?
Not for long though. I’m getting sent out of town for a week for some professional development and I don’t know what my internet access is going to be like. I’m hoping to post a few times during the week but if not, I’ll be back in a few days.
Until I get back, I’d like to leave you with the trailer to Death’s Daughter – it is a little rough but it is a start. If you can’t hear the sound, you may need to turn up the volume a bit.
Have a great week.
I wasn’t supposed to have a love triangle in my current WIP. I’ve gone back through all my ideas and plans and nowhere in it does it suggest that character B likes the protagonist. Yet while I’ve been writing, certain things have been developing.
Character A and the protagonist are getting along swimmingly and things are right on schedule for them but Character B is just so rugged and wild and tempting that I’ve definitely been seeing some sparkage between him and the protagonist. The question becomes do I figure out what this means for the story, develop the relationship properly and then have a full love triangle, or do I try to steer the story back to its original course? Given that the original romance was really just a side plot to a quest story with a little bit of horror thrown in for fun.
It is a question I’ll have to answer soon because otherwise I’ll be too far along one path to easily change without a lot of rewrites and I try not to rewrite until after I’ve finished the first draft. Otherwise I just keep rewriting and the draft never finishes.
So – advantages of going with the love triangle scenario:
1. It is going to add tension between the characters and it will help flesh out character B’s role which in the original plan was clearly not well defined.
2. It will help slow down Character A and protagonists relationship which is going a bit too well at the moment.
3. It makes sense. It wouldn’t make sense for the protagonist to utterly ignore the fact that there are sparks between her and Character B, even if she only acknowledges it long enough to end it.
4. It will be easier to edit out a subplot that doesn’t work later than it will be to add it in after the fact.
1. I don’t like love triangles. I find them a little cliché.
You’re opinion? Are you for or against love triangles? Have you ever created one in a story?
Okay, it was brought to my attention prior to publishing Death’s Daughter that Cassandra (my name) and Calandra (my protagonist’s name) are kind of similar. There are two things I have in common with my protagonist. One – we both like boots. I have a serious liking for wearing boots and my protagonist is equally obsessed. Two – our names start with the letter C and have a similar number of syllables.
Possibly people who know me will point out a few other similarities but as far as I’m concerned, those two points are it. I love Calandra as a character, particularly as she grows throughout the story, but I don’t know that I would ever want to be compared to being too much like her.
So, how did Calandra Delaine end up with such a name?
I remember reading a book as a child where one of the characters were called Callie. I always thought it was a great name. When I started writing the story I decided I’d like for another character in the story to call the protagonist Callie in an affectionate way and then I had to find a full name that could conceivably be shortened to Callie (It seemed like a good idea at the time). I pulled out a dictionary of names and narrowed it down fairly quickly. Here are some of the easily rejected names:
As you can see, not a lot of choice. Besides, I read the name Calandra and I just knew. I had found the name my character needed. If I ever had second thoughts about it, Calandra would be sure to point out to me that she knows her own name and that she would not stand for me arbitrarily changing it on her.
I recently considered the plight of some of my characters and the fact that I put them through so many things I’ve never experienced. This is a small dilemma because I am often left wondering whether the character is actually responding realistically to the situation. I am not the character and I am not going through what they are. All I can do is imagine if I was that person, how would I feel.
That, and read other accounts of similar experiences and research how people have responded to certain events and read psychological discussions etc, etc. Does that enable me to actually understand how my character will feel? Maybe, maybe not. I hope it does enough that I don’t horribly offend any one with a lack of sensitivity.
Considering this, I momentarily wondered if maybe I should actually try to experience some of what my characters go through. Obviously I wouldn’t want to experience most of what I put them through (I would hate to be one of my characters in most of their situations) but it wouldn’t hurt to move a bit closer to understanding them.
The example is one I was playing around with earlier today.
I have a character who is hiding in a tree over night and is trying to sleep. Sleeping in a tree doesn’t strike me as being a fantastically comfortable experience and to be perfectly honest I’m not certain you could brace yourself appropriately and actually sleep.
I started looking at various trees and considering the possibilities.
Finally, I found a fantastic tree that had nice wide, reasonably flat branches, close together and with enough cross branches that you could conceivably brace yourself in the midst of them all and not plummet to your death.
I looked up at them. I wondered what it would feel like to be up there.
Then common sense kicked in.
I am not about to scale a really smooth trunk of a tree to reach branches that may or may not be sturdy enough to support my weight and then attempt to fully relax and hope that somehow I don’t fall sideways and crash to the ground, almost certainly breaking bones. How do you explain that to the ambulance attendant? By the way, I was just checking if a fictional character could sleep in a tree?
I think I’ll just imagine what it would be like and continue to try to put myself in the place of the character and hope I don’t go too far beyond the realm of possibility. Though given it is a made up tree in the story, I think I’ll go out of my way to design it so that it seems slightly more plausible that she didn’t roll out in the middle of the night and crash to her death.
How about you? Do you ever wonder what it would be like to be your character?