First things first, I have to thank Cassandra for this opportunity to write a guest post on her blog. I’m an admirer of her writing style and I thoroughly enjoyed her novel, Death’s Daughter (a review of which can be read on my own blog, The Rhapsodist).
As an amateur reviewer and aspiring writer, I’ve gone into quite a few stories over the years—short stories, novels, TV shows, films, and even a few video games. Some of these stories entertained me, some of them were thought-provoking, and a fortunate few were able to do both. And there were more than a few stories that didn’t really grab me at all.
I’ve had some time to think about this matter and the conclusion I’ve reached is that it helps to really know the premise of your story and flesh it out as best you can.
It’s all too easy to have an idea. You’re sitting there, minding your own business, and then wham! You can see it all in your mind’s eye—the protagonist, the antagonist, the conflict, the setting. And you go to your notebooks or your computer to start to writing it all out… and you realize it’s not the best thing you’ve ever done. The premise is kinda cool, maybe you’ve got a few bits of dialogue that are too hilarious not to be used, but not much else stands out.
So you stick it in your drawer or save your notes on your hard drive, and go back to the rest of your life.
I think some of the best stories are built off those randomly-written notes. You start collecting them after a while and maybe you begin to mix and match things up—the hero in this story idea is now the villain in another concept, the sidekick maybe gets some real development, and you might jump through ten thousand different genres and sub-genres before you find something you really like.
Revision is a painful process, but it wouldn’t hurt if it didn’t care about producing your best material. And I can think of so many stories I’ve read or experienced where it seems like the author didn’t want to bother with a second or third draft. However, if you don’t put yourself through the misery of producing a really good story, you just might be giving that pain over to your readers, who’ll be miserably picking their way through your tale, trying desperately to understand what’s going on.
But how will you know what’s your best story? Well, that’s something every writer has to decide for himself or herself. You might produce ten thousand non-starts before you hit on the One Good Idea that forms the heart of your best work. It will be whatever gets you writing more and writing better. And when you reach something like that, you can sit back and smile, basking in the glow of your creation.
Just don’t smile for too long, because then come the editors, the literary agents, and those critical readers who will tear your beloved work to shreds. And your cycle of pain and beauty begins all over again, and again, and again…
Note from Cassandra: Thanks Alex for your wonderful post today, and for all your support with Death’s Daughter. And thanks for hosting me today as I continue my blog tour.
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 promised I would go back and look at why writing and baking must indeed be two totally separate events are not anything alike. So here goes, my list of why writing a novel is not like baking a cake.
1. It takes a lot longer – unless you are the world’s slowest cook and you aren’t worried about your eggs going off. The time commitment you are making for writing a novel compared to making a cake is enormous. One is something you do on the spur of the moment because you are bored and it’s raining (or because of some event like someone’s birthday) while the other is one that should almost never be jumped into without at least a little thought.
2. If you follow the recipe for baking you will end up with a half-decent cake (hopefully). However there is no recipe or magic formula for making a brilliant novel. There are basic plot outlines and various tools and break downs of the essential elements and some genres are formulaic however if there was a step by step manual to writing a best seller, everyone would be doing it.
3. Cake mix tastes pretty good even if you don’t finish cooking it. A half-baked novel is just that – half-baked.
4. Even if you don’t like the taste of your unused cake mixture, chances are someone else will or the dog/cat/whatever will eat it. Very few people will swallow an unfinished novel.
5. Nobody stares at you strangely when you answer the question, “what are you doing?” with “baking a cake”. Unlike when you answer that question with “writing a novel”.
6. When you finish baking the cake you may criticise it but odds are you aren’t going to pull it apart and try to fix what went wrong. There is no revision process. There is accept what you have or throw it out and start over. The novel is a bit more malleable.
I still like my reasons why writing a novel is like baking a cake but I think it is important to be thorough.
I’m participating in a blog hop set up by Alex J. Canauagh today. The question being – if I could only round up 12 films which 12 would I choose.
Tricky question and I had to really think about this and in the end I decided to go with the idea that I was going to be stuck in isolation for the rest of forever. Which movies did I have to take and what combination?
I decided to start with the child-hood classics.
1. The Dark Crystal – Jim Henson at his finest. An epic fantasy tale told with muppets with some of the most interesting characters I ever met as a child. I love Kira and her matter-of-fact nature as well as her ability to talk to pretty much any animal with a reasonable expectation of being answered.
2. Willow – Again, epic fantasy. This time it is a combination of Warwick Davis and Val Kilmer who are the defnitely draw though the shield bob-sled over snow we probably could have done without. Fairies, trolls, witches, prophesise, what more could a movie want?
3. The Princess Bride – Because it is awesome. Fantasy and romance and action and adventure all rolled into one very entertaining story.
Moving on some old favourites.
4. Indiana Jones (If I’m not allowed the entire trilogy I choose Temple of Doom – though many fans think that this is the weak link) – With the exception of the Crystal Skull (which I still maintain is not Indiana Jones) these movies are incredibly fun, action packed and scenic.
5. Clash of the Titans – The original. Clunky stop-go animation but that vulture is hilarious and this was my gate-way to Greek mythology. Can’t be without this one.
6. The Trouble with Harry – Hitchcock at his most amusing. I just like the twisted sense of humour.
The B-Grade Collection – I have this thing for really bad horror movies.
7. Tremors – If I can have all four of the movies I will, but otherwise I would have to choose the second one. Underground monsters that get smarter by the minute and eat anything that moves. A great laugh with one or two jumps thrown in (just so you remember it was sort of supposed to be a horror).
8. Ginger Snaps – Possibly the best werewolf movie I have ever watched and yet you end up laughing more than being scared by this coming of age movie mixed with horror. I will say that the scariest thing in this movie is Ginger’s mother (creepy).
9. Scream – This one was a toss up between The Faculty and Scream but Scream came out on top for two reasons. One – it gave us one of the best quotes from a bad villain ever: “My mum and dad are going to be so mad at me”. The second reason is that they made sure the last hurrah wasn’t dragged out. Short and sweet and done.
Finally, the feel good movies.
10. Elizabeth Town – Most people will hate this choice. Yes, it is Orlando Bloom. Yes, it does start with him trying to commit suicide. Yes, it mostly deals with a funeral. It is light and amusing and by the road trip at the end you are genuinely feeling good about yourself. This is what I want in a movie when I need cheering up.
11. 10 Things I Hate About You – An updated take on the Taming of the Shrew and my introduction to Heath Ledger, I love this movie. It is well done and uplifting.
12. Just Like Heaven – I needed at least one genuine, sickly sweet movie on this list. This is my choice.
You should head over to Alex’s blog and check out the rest of the blog hop.
I’m going to admit it. I’m becoming very critical.
I’ve always been critical – particularly of myself – but lately I’ve been really critical of a lot of things.
Today I was given a short story to read. The purpose of the story was to demonstrate how to use descriptive language to create an emotional affect in the reader. Possibly it succeeded in that but the only emotional affect it had on me was the desire to grab a red pen and have at it – I managed to resist the urge but barely.
So what was wrong with the story?
Every single person or thing in the story was described by at least two adjectives in almost every single instance. Every single time. I’m sorry. The person is whistling. Sure, you can tell us how they are whistling and what it sounds like but the next time you feel the need to mention it you could just say whistling. You don’t then need to come up with two new adjectives (or an adverb and an adjective) to describe how the whistling is happening.
Objects were appearing ‘out of nowhere’. Umm, no. Unless they were tearing through interdimensional portals I’m pretty sure they came from somewhere. Maybe it wasn’t an important somewhere but to explicitly state they came from out of nowhere just leads the reader to wonder how that is even possible.
Characters were behaving out of character – which in a short story is really distracting because you don’t even have the benefit of later explaining the out of characterness (I know that isn’t a word).
I’ll admit it. I’m awful and I’m tearing this story to threads. And it lead me to realise some of the weaknesses I still have in my own writing. I like adjectives (not to this extent but I over use them to be sure). I may not have things appearing out of nowhere but I’m sure I suddenly have people in scenes where they shouldn’t be and have no logical reason to be and I’m sure I need to work on it. I need to turn this critical eye away from things I’m reading and apply it to things I’m writing and I need to look at what I could be doing instead.
Plenty of areas here for me to work on. What are you working on improving?
It is advice that you hear all the time. Writers should read widely. They should read outside of their preferred genre. Some people even go so far as to give you a specific list of books you must read (I always worry when someone tells me I must read something – it usually leads to me spending many weeks turning one page at a time and finding multiple other things to do).
I do however think it is good advice to read anything and everything you have the time to read – even things you know you are going to hate before you begin them. Here are my 5 reasons why:
1. It is less likely you will end up emulating one particular author or group or authors if you have read widely. Having seen language used so many different ways it is unlikely you will latch onto any one person’s style and so you have more chance to find your own voice.
2. Very few books fall into only one genre. Most have elements of many genres mixed together. Fantasy for instance usually has adventure, mystery, coming of age, romance, drama, horror and a range of other genres interlaced. It helps to have read a wide range of genres so that you can develop these ideas within your own genre.
3. Sometimes you discover something amazing. As I said, I usually worry when someone gives me a book and tells me I have to read it. I tend to have images of high school going through my brain and trying to read the class novel and not fall asleep and then remember enough of the story to write about it afterward. But sometimes, you discover a real gem. Something that just works for you.
4. Even reading something you don’t like can improve your writing. If you critically analyse what it is you don’t like about what you are reading it will make you more critical of your own writing and how the reader will receive it.
5. Particularly if you are write what you know kind of author, more experiences are better. Reading outside your genre, you never know what you might learn.
What do you think? Do you read outside your genre or do you stick with what you know?
Also, what is the worst book you’ve ever had to read because someone has requested you read it?
This week has been crazy busy and I know some of my posts have been pretty short. Still, it has been a great week and I am pleased to share some interesting links for the week.
Just reminding everyone about the series of guest posts I will be running from Feb 15. The title of this series is Novel Elements and I have asked writers (published or unpublished) to share what they think the most important element of a novel is and why. So far I have only been emailed a few responses but I know that other people were interested in participating. If you want to be a part of this series please email me your answer (try to keep it to about 200 words). The email is cassandra (dot) jade (dot) author (at) gmail (dot) com. Looking forward to reading some of these responses and I can’t wait to share them with my readers. Also remember to send a brief bio, a link to your blog, and a picture (the picture isn’t essential but it is nice).
I hope everyone had a great week and here are the links.
Big Beat From Badsville shares a fantastic post on how to turn something from Noir to Cosy in 12 easy stages. Well worth a read.
My posts for the week:
Following on from ‘Oh Sock’ – Response to Elspeth Antonelli’s post about missing socks.
5 Heroic Traits – what makes a hero?
Things that go thump in the night – wondering why so many characters over react to mundane noises and why the ignore things that might be important.
Best Movie Endings – What makes a great end to a movie?
A Banquet for the Characters – I sat down my latest cast and watched the chaos unfold. I still don’t know what my characters like to eat.
Old Friends or New – Do you call on the protagonists old friends or do they meet somebody new?
Other Posts on Writing:
LawrenceEz talks about using flash-backs and repressed memories.
Richard W Scott discusses why writing what you know might be a myth.
Margot Kinberg looks at characters bearing grudges and motivation.
Katie Ganshert explores using hooks at the end of chapters to keep people reading.
The Old Silly shares some advice on moron dialogue – more importantly, he gives examples on how to improve the dialogue.
Elizabeth Spann Craig discusses the bad guys and how to make your antagonist interesting.
DNBRD explores Steampunk and provides some great examples of authors from the genre.
I stumbled across Dorotie’s Blog the other day and read a post called “Crossing the Boundaries – Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror” and I found it raised a few interesting points. Admittedly it left sci-fi and fantasy sitting together and contrasted both genres simultaneously with horror but it was still a good read.
The arguments brought forward are that in fantasy and science fiction the heroes have abilities that are comparable to their antagonists (yes, there are exceptions but for the most part that is true), that usually one of the characters has knowledge about what is going on or why it is happening (or they can find someone who can explain it), and that most of the characters will make it through the climax and live to the end of the story (again there are exceptions but generally this is true). These things happen in fantasy and science fiction. In horror the heroes are usually completely powerless compared to the antagonist, they are usually completely clueless or misinterpreting the situation and most of them die in tragic ways usually long before they reach the climax.
All and all, I agree with these distinctions for the most part and it was something I hadn’t really thought about before. I read all three genres prolifically and yet because most of the horrors I read are fantasy/horror or science fiction/horror I never bothered to think about what distinguished horror from the other two genres. I have however spent a lot of time wondering where the line between fantasy and science fiction begins and ends.
I classify myself as a fantasy writer. I deal with magic, mythical creatures, mental powers, gods, destinies and prophecies. Mostly these are set in make believe worlds with very occasional attempts to write fantasy stories set on Earth in modern day without putting too many cues in that might date the story.
I have attempted to write a story set on a space ship. The ship is alive and talks, has a very annoying personality (based on the original pilot of the ship) and the characters are all slightly off-kilter. This is not a science fiction story. There is no explanation of technology, no exploration of themes such as do machines have souls and what does it mean to be human, the physics of careening through space are left completely out of the story. The ship flies. It is piloted telepathically. It is a fantasy. The characters deal with their own personal demons, relationships form and are tested, and there is a minor political drama midway through that disappears entirely by the third act. I will admit I class this as an attempt to write a fantasy in space. I don’t think it was overly successful as the couple of fantasy readers who have had a look at it, don’t like it the setting and the science fiction readers who have read it claim there are too many scientific impossibilities. Well, we have to try new things occasionally and I like enough of this story that I may salvage it and relocate the events to a fantasy world, or maybe I’ll just research myself up a storm and have a go at writing straight science fiction (somehow I doubt it).
What genre do you write? How do you classify your genre? Do you cross between or do you stick to one? I would love to hear your thoughts on this.