Note from Cassandra: Thanks Carol for hosting me on your blog today and for your excellent post here. I hope everyone enjoys reading your words of wisdom.
POP GOES THE WEASEL
First of all, I want to thank Cassandra for offering me this opportunity to be a guest on her fantastic blog. I always learn from her posts. Today I’m a virgin – this is my first ever time to write a post for someone else’s blog. It’s a little frightening. So here we go, sink or swim.
“Pop Goes the Weasel” is a song most of us learned before we could string more than two words together – as soon as we could master the crank on the side of the Jack-in-the-Box. We watched Mommy turn it, Daddy, big sister. We knew what was coming.
The clown popped out, and we jumped and squealed. We couldn’t wait for them to push the clown back in and make it jump out. “Again! Again!”
Then it was our turn. We turned it fast, we turned it slow, we mixed it up. Again and again.
When we were two, this was thinking outside the box.
We passed the Terrific Terrible Twos a long time ago. Now most of you reading this are writers.
Today, thinking outside the box means something a little different from Mr. Jack. We still have the familiar set-up, but the outcome is . . . outside the box. Now when we turn the crank, maybe the box explodes. Or the clown is a girly fish dressed in sequins with a pink feather boa around her neck and wearing bright red lipstick. Or we have to put the box together like a puzzle to hear the song. Or we start with the clown outside, turn the crank, and he returns to the box.
The same with our writing. Thinking outside the box applies to every aspect of a novel – character, conflict, dialogue, setting, tone, point of view, plot, theme, and so on.
Instead of your protagonist being a firefighter, maybe he’s a special hot-spot firefighter who gets called out on wildfires. Or maybe he’s a dragon and a rookie in the Dragonopolis Fire Department who always needs to be careful not to start fires of his own when he sneezes or laughs or becomes angry.
Thinking outside the box takes many forms. That’s the beauty. The possibilities are endless.
What’s your favorite way to think outside the box?
Carol Kilgore is a Texas writer living in San Antonio. She writes mystery and suspense with a little romance to tingle your tootsies. Her blog, Under the Tiki Hut, is a positive spot for readers and writers to meet, relax, and exchange ideas and dreams.
Note from Cassandra: I’m over on Laura’s blog today but she has come to visit us here in the realm to tell us about her writing schedule. Thanks Laura for being here today. After you check out her post here, hop on over to Laura’s blog to check out my post for today.
Gosh, I’m so excited to be a part of Cassandra’s blog tour. What an exciting month, right? Cheers, Cassandra, for all the hard work you’ve put into organizing this international writer fest!
I’ve been asked countless times about how I squeeze writing into my schedule. I’m going to preface this with a disclaimer. You see, I think my answer is a non-answer, but it’s the reality. Okay, drum roll, please!
I don’t schedule writing time. Nope. I don’t.
Why? Because if I did, I’d feel pressure to write, no matter the quality or topic. For me, pressure creates angst and frustration. Angst and frustration actually makes me freeze up. I get too caught up in things like: What should I write about? What if it sucks? What if I can’t find the right words? What if it doesn’t turn out the way I want it?
Notice most of those questions have a negative connotation. SO not cool. Once the negativity wheel starts spinning, I dig myself deeper and deeper into a rut and my writing stagnates like a 1000 year old bog. Stinky. Yuck.
So I don’t even go there.
Sure, I still have goals and I still work really hard to obtain them. For the most part, I do get some writing in every day, but I don’t go all ballistic and start berating myself if I don’t. I trust myself and my brain that the right words will come out if I let them come at their own pace.
Yes, it’s true that I will go days, sometimes weeks, without writing. And that’s okay. Because my brain is still processing things even if I’m not actively thinking about it. I can tell because when I DO sit down to write, the magic happens. An idea strikes. A dialogue snafu gets smoothed. A plot hole gets filled in.
It all works out.
That being said, everybody develops their own strategy to apply to their writerly life and I’d LOVE to hear your routine for writing!
Laura is a board certified psychiatrist and hopes to become a published author. She writes adult and young adult urban fantasy, fantasy, and dystopian fiction. Her blog: Diamond, Yup, Like the Stone http://lbdiamond.wordpress.com/.
Sometimes it is difficult to know.
What starts out as a simple search and destroy for typos can suddenly become a revision of a clumsy scene which can soon morph into an entire rewrite of an act of a novel. I think the problem here comes from not being able to focus on only one aspect of the writing at a time.
For me, I like to start with the big stuff and work my way down to the small. While I’ll correct typing errors as I see them and move punctuation that is truly being offensive, editing the nitty-gritty is kind of the last ditch run through, mostly because if I revise or rewrite I know I’m just going to put more errors into the text.
So I begin with the rewrites. I may stay in the rewriting stage for the rest of forever with some manuscripts. Rewrites, for me, are the massive changes. The adding characters, taking them out, changing direction entirely, cutting scenes, adding scenes, moving scenes. All of the things that give you a huge headache when it comes to checking for continuity errors and will usually have you rewriting chapter after chapter to accommodate the change you made way back in the beginning.
Then I revise. These are the more surgical changes. Adding an emphasis here, changing the wording of that exchange of dialogue there, altering a description in that chapter. Sometimes these have carry on effects but normally it is just tightening up the overall story that has already been rewritten (many times) and checked for continuity.
Then, should I have made it this far and not put the project aside, comes the editing.
Still, despite wanting to work from one layer down to the next, down to the next, I end up jumping back and forth between the three.
How does your process for revisions work?
I’ve talked a bit about inspiration previously and where ideas come from but I usually avoid talking about my muse (I’m not saying I don’t use this turn of phrase but it isn’t my favourite way to put things). The reason for this is that by calling it a muse and personifying the idea of inspiration it makes it sound like it is something external to the writer and not part of them.
I don’t usually like this idea.
For me inspiration is definitely an internal process and the ideas from within. Certainly my mind draws in things it has seen and heard and smelled and used these in combination to form what might become a story idea but that process definitely takes place within. No mythic being bestows the ideas upon me, fully formed or otherwise. And because it is an internal and slow process of bits and pieces being slotted together, the ideas become very much apart of the writer. You’ve raised the idea from just a tiny spark or notion to a fully fleshed out plot line that might eventually get written down.
Maybe the problem is that by externalising the idea it feels like it is cheapening the process. That somehow writers just get ideas. That nothing goes on, they sit around with empty heads and wait for a magic muse to hit them with some fairy dust.
Then again, at other times it does feel like something else is happening. The ideas move seemingly overnight (which probably means my subconscious is at work) but suddenly something that seemed unworkable has fallen into place. A line of dialogue that isn’t working can suddenly be heard clearly. That little voice in the back of your mind nudges you in just the right direction at just the right moment.
If my muse exists she’s probably going to clobber me after writing this. And yes, she would be female.
I think that if it is about the muse then we shouldn’t be waiting for her, we should definitely be out there hunting her down and demanding information right now. Hopefully with more success than Elmer Fudd ever had hunting rabbits.
What do the other writers think? Muses or not. Cheapening the process or giving writers a way to talk about something they sometimes don’t fully understand – their creative processes?
It has occurred to me recently that if I were to actually write dialogue the way most people speak there is very little chance that someone who wasn’t inside either of the speaker’s heads would understand what on earth the conversation was about.
For instance, I recently overheard the following conversation.
“Ya. Like.. Just yeah.”
“OMG. Really. This is just… Oh my god.”
“So have you told..?”
“We have to tell…”
“She’s… Where is she?”
And this continued for another few minutes and then the two people talking walked away. An entire conversation unfolding and yet nothing that actually identified a subject or point to the conversation. What if characters spoke like this in books? The reader would need a lot of narration surrounding the conversation to make heads or tails of it.
Then again, my characters always speak far too precisely. I’m trying to work on that and find a more natural flow for the dialogue.
What about your characters? Do they speak in grammatically correct English or do they take a more natural approach? Love to hear your thoughts.
It’s become almost cliche now. The moments where in a story where two adversaries are facing off and they are playing mind games with one another that they each tell us their theory on the I know that they know that I know etc, etc. And it can be exciting to see the twists and turns these minds take in formulating a single move (whether to smile at a certain comment, or would that be a give away). It can also be exceedingly dull when neither of the characters are as smart as they think they are and their reasoning is both obvious and infantile.
What brought this up?
I’m rewatching Death Note – for the third time, yes, I know. I know.
I can’t help it. I love the plot. I love a lot of anime but Death Note stands, if not alone than at least a little off to the side of where most other anime stand. There are no epic fight sequences and only a few explosions. No magical transformations and gravity defying leaps into the air. Death Note is a thrilling crime story where both the killer and the detective trying to play the cat stalking the mouse and end up locked in one of the most intriguing mental play-offs I’ve ever watched (or read for that matter).
The difficulty being that the crime begin committed isn’t really a crime. Light has found a book that allows him to kill anyone if he writes their name in the book and can picture their face. The story is told mostly from his perspective though as the story progresses we begin to see more and more from L, our detective who has to catch a killer when he can’t even figure out how they are killing.
Both characters are brilliant, driven and ultimately, both are willing to die for their beliefs. Light believes he can create a better world using the note while L believes that the mysterious killer is evil and must be brought down. Both believe they serve justice (though Light strays further and further from this path as the story progresses).
As the two characters meet and begin to work together to solve the crime there are many sequences where the action halts and the internal dialogue is expressed. Both characters are desperately trying to trip the other character up. Light needs L’s real name and L needs proof that Light is the killer and he needs to know how Light has managed it.
All and all, this series works and it draws me in completely. So what makes this story work?
Clever dialogue, intelligent reasoning and very few holes in the logic behind the story. As long as you can believe that the Death Note can work, the rest of the story works perfectly. Even the rules for how the Death Note works are clearly established and maintained throughout the story. Both of the characters are complex and their development is clear. Light’s transformation as he gives in to the temptation of the Death Note is both logical and yet mesmerising.
The only complaint I would have of this series is the length and the lull in the centre of the story. This is caused when L seems to lose his way and in essence gives up. We all know that if characters sit around waiting for things to happen, the story gets dull.
Have you got a favourite television series that has taught you something about writing?
I was recently reading Elizabeth Spann Craig’s post on Secrets and it really got me thinking because I’m currently weaving a few of these through my most recent story (which was going well and then I rewrote the beginning and then I got busy with work and so is now in the plan and replan phase but I think will work out once I have the time to put some serious work into it – wow, that was a long explainer).
Anyway, I really enjoyed reading Elizabeth’s post and found it really useful because she includes a list of what secret’s are good for in a story and that helped me focus on why I was trying to put the secret into the story in the first place. Once I figured out the purpose of having characters keep secrets from one another and why they were necessary to the story it all suddenly fell into place and now I’m wishing I had the time to really write.
Secrets are one of my favourite plot devices. I love it when we, as the reader, know more about what is going on than any one particular character and I also love it when we’re kept in the dark but once the secret is revealed all the little hints and clues fall into place. What I don’t like is when the story tangles itself into an unmanageable mess and one of the characters suddenly says “oh, don’t worry. I haven’t told you…” That is very much like throwing a ghost in at the last minute just to solve all the problems and wrap it up nicely when there is nothing earlier in the story to support this sudden revelation.
Following on from Elizabeth’s post I started thinking about what sort of characters keep secrets. We all know that in real life some people just couldn’t keep a secret if their life depended on it and others like to throw smug looks around like the cat that got the cream while they wait for someone to ask them what they know. They have to share but they have to be prompted to do so. Then there are those who file the secret away and simply get on about their business. Even when asked to share they simply dismiss it as unimportant and move on. Then there are those who share it but only with their best of friends, because they have to tell someone but they don’t really want to reveal the secret. Of course, as trustworthy as their friends are if they are the type that can’t keep a secret that secret is going to get out.
Can your characters keep a secret and what would they keep hidden?
Okay, if you’ve never read a Xanth novel than you probably should, though only if you are really into fantasy.
When people think about humour in fantasy and really rich and interesting worlds and characters they usually look at Pratchett, for good reason. Pratchett is a master of weaving the absurd into his stories and still making this amazing, insightful tale. Yet I find Piers Anthony to have created an equally rich and vibrant world of magic and zany characters though the writing style can feel a little dry at times (probably because the books were published before I was born).
Xanth is a world of magic. Every person (though I use the term person loosely) and everything must have magic or they are exiled from the land. The main character is Bink and we first meet Bink when he is facing exile because he cannot exhibit a magic power. It turns out he does have magic and extremely powerful magic but if I tell you anything else about that it will ruin the very first Xanth novel so you’ll just have to find out for yourself. The setting in these books is alive. The trees each have a magical function. This one grows shoes, that one will grow blanket, and the next one will eat you, etc, etc. The wildlife is intelligent and deadly and you really do have to pay attention to where you step in Xanth.
I really loved reading these books.
What did I learn about writing from reading these books?
- Even if your main character seems weaker than the others, they don’t have to be tearful and pathetic. So many protagonists in fantasy novels start out simpering and useless. Bink may start out weak and he may never rival some of the other characters for strength, but at least he always has strength of character. At no stage do you want something to eat him just so he’ll stop complaining.
- There does not need to be a big, dark, evil in a fantasy novel. There are all manner of conflicts your characters can face. Bink goes up against the rules of his society when he faces exile. Nobody is evil but there is a problem that has to be overcome. In one of the later books the characters choose to seek the source of Xanth’s magic and go on a quest. There is no evil stopping them but it is still a quest filled with danger and excitement.
- Said was not always the dialogue tag of choice. I can – and did – open ‘The Source of Magic’ to any number of pages with lots of dialogue and I found that said was used once. What was used was ‘cried’, ‘exclaimed’, ‘retorted’, ‘urged’, ‘murmured’ and so on. Yes, the current convention is to not use dialogue tags or to limit it to said. I am hoping that the trend changes because I enjoy people exclaiming and shrieking and all those other things that they used to do in books.
- Keeping your characters (and your readers) in the dark makes for a really interesting story as nobody really suspects where things are going to go and yet the story still makes sense.
I’ve finally come to Traci Harding. I would have done her first but unfortunately whenever I talk to people who read very few of them have read Traci Harding and that is a shame. She became my absolute favourite author of all time when I was in high school and even though I have not particularly liked her later work, I still think her Ancient Future Trilogy is the best fantasy trilogy I have ever read.
What did I love about the Ancient Future Trilogy?
- The protagonist. Tori Alexander is an amazing female protagonist. She is confident, strong (she’s a black belt), smart (multiple university degrees), funny, romantic and yet flawed in that she is overly emotional, stubborn and extremely proud. As a high school student she really appealed because her flaws were kind of endearing and she was just an incredible person to read about. Here is a girl who can get zapped through time (multiple times) and always lands on her feet and wins the heart of the really, really hunky guy who just happens to be a King. She’s also an Australian who just happens to be travelling around England when she goes time travelling,
- The setting – A time travel fantasy where they go back to the days of knights and kings but they don’t end up in Camelot. There are a lot of references to the kingdom, there are parallels, but this is not an Arthurian legend and it was nice to read something a little bit different because at the time it seemed like every second fantasy book I read was about Arthur and friends.
- The supporting cast – All the characters in this story are kind of interesting. The fact that you meet several incarnations of the same soul in several different time zones means you see how the soul has developed and grown overtime and you get a real insight into each of the characters by the time we reach the end of the trilogy. There are only a couple of characters who seem to get sidelined and really leave you wanting to know more about them.
- The time travel – I usually really dislike time travel stories because they tie themselves in knots and you are always left wondering how it works its way out. Traci Harding create a time travel story that for once kind of makes sense though by the third book she’s kind of skating over the details very quickly and her explanations may not hold up under scientific analysis but there aren’t any glaring inconsistencies just jumping out and hitting you in the face and disrupting the storyline.
- The ending – and I will not ruin the end of the trilogy for anyone but if you want to experience an end of the world scenario that is truly incredible, this is the trilogy for you.
Now, even though it is my favourite trilogy of all time and I fully recommend reading it to anyone who likes fantasy, adventure, romance, spirituality, strong female characters, etc, etc, I do have to acknowledge some of the issues with the trilogy.
- The language – I do not care what Tori Alexander studied at university you are never going to convince me that anyone living in modern Australia can speak ancient Welsh proficiently enough to communicate with people when travelling back in time. Admittedly, the story would kind of be awful if Tori couldn’t speak to anyone (mostly because she would have been killed within minutes of arriving back in time) but with so much magic and spells flying around later in the story, I would have bought translation spell as an explanation before linguistic genius.
- Repetition – The reader understands fairly quickly that underpinning this relatively simple story about a girl travelling in time there is this deep spiritual story about mastering your soul and acceptance of others view points and natural energy flows and all of these other ideas which are working well together to create a rich and interesting story. However the same concepts are explained multiple ways throughout the trilogy and at times you want to cut the character off and tell them “I already got that in the last book”. Actually, you don’t notice the repetition so much the first time you read the trilogy but the sixth or seventh time it starts to become a bit more obvious.
- The second book – It is always the second book of a trilogy that feels like it is marking time and filling in details and the second book of this trilogy is no different. Tori gets to visit Atlantis, which is kind of cool, except that the people in Atlantis are so spiritual and sweet and dull you are kind of happy when everything starts falling apart.
So, writing lessons learned from reading Traci Harding:
- Have an incredible protagonist – one that really draws people into the story. They don’t have to be perfect and they don’t always have to make the right decision but they need to be interesting and appealing.
- Put the extra work into the supporting characters. The reader will appreciate it.
- If writing a trilogy, spend the extra time on the second book and figure out how to avoid the curse of the middle book. It may not be possible but try anyway.