Monthly Archives: February 2012
Sometimes, either before you begin a novel or between edits of a novel, you realize you need to learn more about your characters or your world before you can dive into the main story. Although it might be tempting to rush into the story, it pays to do this work so that creating the next draft is less painful. In order to maximize efficiency, I’ve found a way to explore character and setting at the same time.
This doesn’t include research. While learning about your setting always informs what your characters are like and how they react to things based on where they’re from, research rarely leads directly to new realizations about characters.
What does lead to new realizations about characters is free writing. But how do you use free writing to learn about your setting at the same time?
It’s easy. All you have to do is ask your character a simple question about the world, country or city they’re in. Ask them about their neighbourhood. Ask them about their favourite type of food–is it rare where they are or common? Where is it from? Ask them any kind of question you want that has to do with the world around them, and start writing out their answer. Let them inform you about their world. My best scenes have been written when I felt like I was channelling a character and that is your goal here: to channel the character.
This exercise works well to reveal both character and setting because, frankly, the best way to learn about a world–especially one you’re created yourself–is by putting yourself in the shoes of someone who lives there. So, if you’re trying to explore your characters while getting a better understanding your world, try asking your characters one of these questions:
1. What is the biggest festival of the year in your town/city/kingdom?
2. What grows best on the farms near your house?
3. How do you celebrate your gods?
4. What are naming ceremonies like in your town/city/village?
5. Who is the nicest person in town?
6. Who is the meanest person in town?
7. Do any of the local lords have bastard children?
8. How does your town/city/village draw tourists?
9. Who is in charge of your town/city/village?
10. Do you like the person in charge of your town/city/village?
These questions are just a small sample of the hundreds of questions you can ask your characters to find out more about the world you’re writing in and to get used to listening to them and channelling them. Think of it sort of like journalling for your character. As you might use a prompt to work with in your journal–say, ‘my favourite childhood book’–use these questions to work with your characters. You’re bound to make new discoveries along the way and soon you’ll be used to writing in each character’s voice. Best of all, you get to see your world from the eyes of someone who actually lives there.
I dream of someday making a living from my fiction. This blog is about that dream and how I’m going to reach it. Unfortunately, there are a hundred writers for every fiction market, and so far, my fiction hasn’t seen the light of day. Instead, I’ve found my early successes in the realm of non-fiction: from September to December I worked as a youth blogger for Now Hear This, I’ve written articles and interviewed authors for Penumbra during my internship, and just this Friday I had my first real guest post(as in the first one I queried myself) published at My Name is Not Bob.
All of these non-fiction experiences have been a lot of fun, and I’ve learned something from each of them. Most importantly, I’ve learned that I do have what it takes to write for other people. I might not have found someone who loves my fiction yet, but each non-fiction sale boosts my confidence. Each non-fiction sale tells me that I write well, that I have a place in the writing world, and that someday, people will read my fiction, too.
So how do you find these same opportunities? Well, think of the places where you like to get your information from. Who are your favourite bloggers? Do they accept guest posts? Do you have something to contribute to their conversation?
My Name is Not Bob is the blog of Robert Brewer, editor of Writer’s Market and a fiction writer on the side. His blog includes inspiring life stories, personal anecdotes and advice for writers. I enjoy his conversational tone and easy-to-read blog layout. So when I discovered that he was accepting guest posts, I decided I’d love to work with him.
But what did I have to contribute to the conversation? I had some pretty awesome advice for writers: How Writers Can Benefit from Publishing Internships, and how writers can get–and keep–those internships.
So, while my Now Hear This job sort of fell into my lap and my articles for Penumbra are all a part of the internship, I decided to query Robert with my ideas. Familiarity with the blog and with Robert’s tone helped a lot. From his posts he seemed friendly, so I wasn’t too nervous sending him a polite email asking if he would be interested in a couple guest posts about internships.
He said he’d be thrilled to have them, so I wrote up my two guest posts, edited them a little here and there, and sent them off. Of course, even with him already showing interest, I was still a little nervous when I sent them off. Thanks to Penumbra, I’ve sat on both ends of this thing–and I’ve had to tell authors who I invited to post on the blog that their post wasn’t approved. Let me tell you, it really does feel bad on both sides.
If you’re working on a guest post for somebody, make sure you’re familiar with their tone. Your voice should still stand out as different, but you want a similar tone. If the blog is PG-13, even if you’re an erotica writer by trade, follow that PG-13 guideline. If the blog tends to use very simple or sophisticated language, alter your own style to be just a little closer to theirs. Generally, the better your post fits with everything else on the site, the more likely it is to actually get posted.
Remember to be polite when dealing with anyone you want to work with and to follow their guidelines. Some bloggers have very loose guidelines for guest posts and others are very specific. If they want you to query, query first. If they just want you to send them a post, send them a post. Send it in the format they want it in. If you know what kind of coding they use, try to code it so it’s already formatted for maximum convenience.
Basically, when you’re sending another blogger your work, you want to make sure that it’s something they’ll find interesting and actually want to put on their blog, that you give them your best work, that it fits with their blogging topic, and that you’re polite. It may sound like a lot, but really, it’s easy–and I’m saying this from the perspective of someone who used to be afraid to query blogs I liked.
Odds are–and this is the best part–that if you really like a blogger and their work, and you present yourself well, they’ll really like you too. I mean, you already know you have one thing in common, right?
If you’d like to see the guest post that inspired this post, click here.
Have you tried writing for somebody else’s blog before?
Lately I’ve been working on a lot of background stuff for Moonshadow’s Guardian, also known as my Novel of a Thousand Drafts. I’ve had a lot of fun exploring characters’ pasts and writing pieces in side characters’ point of view. Really, it’s all just procrastination because I’m sick of editing this darn novel. But I have enjoyed it, and I’ve worked with a lot of interesting themes. In particular, I’ve been developing the relationship between one of my main characters and his bastard son–who I only found out existed fairly recently.
Working on their relationship has taught me quite a bit about the character in question. I’ve learned that he spent almost two years with Calder’s mother before she left him because he couldn’t marry her. It wasn’t really his decision, it was the king’s–his brothers’–decision, but she left him for it anyway and turned to the bottle for comfort. He’s got a bit of a guilt complex about it, and in the set of stories I’m working on now, he’s finally convinced Jacob to let him recognize his son.
The best part? I’m writing short stories that I might be able to sell while fleshing out my characters for the novel. This way, I’m able to work towards two goals at once: my goal to write–and submit–more short fiction, and my goal to have MG ready for submission by the end of the year.
Today’s prompt came from the story I started yesterday:
Write a scene in which a young boy is reunited with his father after a tragedy only to discover that his father is blind.
The tragedy can be anything you choose–a war, an earth quake, a hurricane–just have some fun with it. If you can use characters from one of your novels for this story, do so. If not, make up some new ones and have fun getting acquainted.
Please post the first sentence of your response in the comments.
It’s that time of year again. All the mistletoe has rotted and half of everyone’s New Year resolutions have already been thrown out the window. That first draft of your Nano–or whatever other project you’ve been ignoring for the last several months–has been sitting in its corner quietly collecting dust for long enough.
It’s time to pull that tome out and edit. It will be painful, it might be bloody–though I suspect you’ll go through more ink than actual blood–but it’s necessary. Trust me, your novel will look better without all those tangents and ten page character descriptions. They are extra limbs just getting in the way–I mean, spiders have eight legs but if a human had eight arms that would just be awkward, right? Think of limbs as sub-plots and character descriptions and then decide whether your book should be a human or a spider and act accordingly.
Anyway. Before you go into your word file and start messing around, there are a few things you really should do. These steps should help get you organized so that when you get to the novel to start messing around, you know exactly what you need to do and you don’t get discouraged.
1. Print it out. You’ll do all your actual tinkering inside word, of course, because that’s where you wrote it and that’s where the file is, but you have to print it out. First off, you tend to–and I do it too, it’s okay–skim when you’re reading on a computer. Printing it out slows down the reading process, which means you catch more errors. There’s also something about that black font on that crisp white paper that makes errors stand out.
2. Read it and take notes. Don’t go back into your word file until you’ve read THE WHOLE THING and taken notes on it. Some people suggest to read it really quickly and only to note how you felt about it overall the first time. I’ve never been able to do that. I’m anal enough to proofread my math tests and published books. I can’t imagine NOT crossing out words and fixing typos. But really, if you’re in one of your first few edits, those little things aren’t important–I’m not going to stop you from writing them down, but focus on the story.
One thing I’ve done, just as a quick example, is to write chapter notes at the end of each chapter. I write these on the back of the page where the chapter ends, and these are my story notes. Those are the notes I look at when going to the next step.
3. Make a To-Do List. Your to-do list starts with world building. Do you have any new questions about your world? Will you have to develop the world further to get a feel for a new subplot? I decided in this draft of Moonshadow’s Guardian to make politics more important to the story, which means I need to build the family trees of the politicians. That’s just one example of a number of small world building things I’ll be doing before I start my next draft.
Your to-do list obviously also includes any new scenes or subplots you need to add, characters you’d like to develop, writing exercises you’d like to do to master PoV, and any scenes or subplots you need to delete. Basically, even if it’s a separate short story that’s another exploration of your world or characters, include it on the list because it will in some way make your next draft more awesome. If in doubt, put it on the list. You can always change your mind later.
4. Do some writing exercises. Even if you didn’t put it on your list, do some writing exercises. Stay in the world you’ve already been working on and write about something in it or someone. Pick a famous object from your world and describe it. Write about the first time someone meets your main character–from that other person’s point of view. Put yourself into the head space of your novel by working inside its world for a little while before you actually dive into editing. That way you won’t have to spend time getting back into the flow when you’re actually in your novel file. Of course, this is also when you do any exercises you put on your to-do list and any world building.
These steps will prepare you to edit that monster first draft. Editing can feel overwhelming, but taking the time to read through and make a list of everything you have to do will make it a little less terrifying. At least now you know not just where you’re going, but–if only vaguely–how you’re going to get there, too.
Next week I’m probably going to talk about something totally random while the guilt about not doing anything on my MG to-do list eats away at me, but sometime soon we’re going to talk about first chapters.
How do you prepare to edit?
Once upon a time, short stories were the most popular form of fiction. Novelists became famous writing serial stories, short stories that if read together connected into a longer piece.
Nowadays, the market for short stories, especially serials, is shrinking. Ebooks have made it possible to sell your short story to the whole world anyway, but for those of us seeking validation by exclusive magazines, the markets are dwindling. I’m noticing this as I look for markets, both for my own stories and for this feature of my blog. A few of the markets sitting in my bookmarks have died. In the four years since I’ve started paying attention to magazines that publish fiction, many have come and gone.
There will always be a need for good writing. It might turn out that by the end of this year I’ve run out of paying magazines and ezines to mention to you. But don’t give up hope. There are always ebook publishers–and the number of those is probably going to grow sporadically–and of course, your next story might find a home if this one doesn’t.
With that said, on to today’s markets:
Scapezine takes Young Adult fiction, poetry and artwork. They pay one cent per word and they take submissions by email. Don’t forget to read the guidelines thoroughly and maybe a couple of stories on the main site to get a feel for what they publish.
Encounters seems to take stories of the length I seem to write–3, 500 to 10, 000–in the science fiction, horror and fantasy genres. Make sure you read their guidelines thoroughly. They offer token payment.
Freefall is a Canadian magazine which publishes fiction and pays $10.00/printed page. They accept submissions from all over the world, but they try to keep their content 85% Canadian. Yay Canada.
Hopefully these markets will help you along your writing journey. If you get a bunch of rejections, that’s okay–I’ve got a big stack too.
On Co-Writing a Novel
When my good friend, David Pilling, and I decided to write a novel together we had no idea where to start. We had both written plenty of stuff individually, but how do you coordinate a dual effort?
Before we could think of the actual story, we had to decide how we would both contribute to a book without it being disjointed and difficult to read. After a few decent ales and a good chat, we came up with the idea of a story with two main protagonists who are born on opposite sides of a world, have never met, but are inexorably drawn to each other, for reasons we were yet to think of!
The plan seemed perfect because it meant we had two main characters, each with a life, enemies, friends, culture, religion, who didn’t meet until the end of the book. I would write about one character and David would write about the other. And so The Best Weapon flickered into life.
Our plan of action turned out to be the first step towards a story line and, over a few more ales, we thrashed out a rough outline of the synopsis. Then, feeling rather excited and eager to get started, we both went home to start work on our first chapter. A few days later we were reading each other’s first efforts. It was good to see the characters we had ranted about in the pub come to.
The great thing about co-writing is that you have instant feedback on everything you write, but to take full advantage of this you absolutely have to be completely honest with each other. It is really important that you point something out which you don’t think works and are equally happy to take criticism. If you’re working with the right person, it’ll work well.
We are both influenced by the same authors, Bernard Cornwall, Robert E Howard, Joe Abercrombie and Rafael Sabatini to name a few, and our writing styles are similar. We found that what we had written fitted together fairly seamlessly and those few close friends and family who read the first couple of chapters couldn’t tell who had written what or where I stopped and he started. We took that as a good sign.
Over the following six months, we would meet around twice a week and talk about the story. We would discuss ideas for plot-changes and developments, often getting quite heated in our debates. These discussions were really important. Being able to bounce ideas off one another meant that we could develop them into some thing which we felt was really exciting.
On a personal note, I have learned a lot from working with someone who has a bit more writing experience and a much better education (he spent a lot of time correcting me spelling!) and now I have more confidence to write on my own.
If I had any advice for anyone thinking of co-writing a book, it would be to be completely honest with each other from the start. Don’t be afraid to criticise or suggest improvements about your co-writer’s work, it is all about the two of you coming up with the best story you can by using the best of both your skills. Most of all, you should really enjoy writing together because the more you enjoy writing it, the more someone else will enjoy reading it…
Martin Bolton was born in Cornwall in 1979 and now lives and works in Bristol.
Previously he concentrated on his artwork and writing small pieces of nonsense for the
amusement of his friends, before deciding to do some serious creative writing. His first published
work, a full length novel co-written with David Pilling, is The Best Weapon, is due to be released
by Musa Publishing on 02 March 2012..
His work is inspired by authors such as Joe Abercrombie, Robert E Howard, Bernard
Cornwell and Iain M. Banks.