Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

Do you Plot It, or Pants It?

Book ButterflyA plotter is someone who makes some sort of an outline of their story before he or she sits down to write it. Sometimes this is an exhaustive document, sometimes it’s just a list of scenes or major plot points.

A “pantser” is someone who gets an idea and runs with it: no idea where he’s going, but eventually, he’ll get to the end of the story. (This is writing by the seat of the pants, hence the name.)

I’m a plotter…usually. I like to know where I’m going. It saves me tons of re-writes and I never get writer’s block.

I say “usually” because I’ve just started a novel which I’m pantsing. And it’s killing me. I can’t stand not having an outline. (I don’t know how you pantsers do it.)

The reason I’m pantsing it this time around is because I’m writing a story which is a bit outside of my comfort zone: a contemporary urban fantasy which takes place in Baltimore. I’ve got (what I think is) a fantastic idea…and I’m running with it.

What I need to do is let the idea percolate in my mind for a while before I start to write, but I’m too excited about it. I just want to get it all down on paper…but I don’t know where it’s going to end.

And that’s the problem: if I don’t know how it’s going to end, I can’t plot it out.

I’ve recently signed up for an on-line plot class to see if that could help. Unfortunately, lesson one included writing the beginning of the story (no problem!) and the end (um, problem). The class is designed to fill in the middle.

Well, I could do that on my own…

I’m toying with S. Andrew Swann’s method right now:

A four step exercise in Plot development:

1. Create a character.
2. Give this character a problem to deal with.
3. Imagine at least three different ways this particular character might possibly deal with this particular problem.
4. Pick one (or more) of these options, and imagine at least three different ways it a) wouldn’t work, and b) would make the character’s situation worse. (Short of killing off the protagonist and ending the story.)

It’s promising, and might help me out with lesson one of my online class. With some luck, I’ll have an outline by this weekend.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. Once you get an idea for a story, how do you manage the plotting through to the end? What do you do if you’re not quite sure how it will end? What are some strategies or exercises you employ to form a cohesive story?

Here are some fantastic resources on plotting I’ve found while trying to hammer out my plot:

* The Butterfly Story Plot Graphic is from Scholastic. It appears it’s no longer available for download from their sight. (Alas.) If anyone has the pdf, I’d love to have a copy!

Friday, September 24th, 2010

Friday Writing Prompt – Make a Law

U.S. Supreme CourtThe Judiciary Act of 1789 established the Supreme Court when it was enacted on September 24.

A “High Court” was hotly debated during discussions during the ratification of the Constitution.

According to Wikipedia:

Indeed, of the ten amendments that eventually became the Bill of Rights, five (the fourth through the eighth) dealt primarily with judicial proceedings. Even after ratification, some opponents of a strong judiciary urged that the federal court system be limited to a Supreme Court and perhaps local admiralty judges. The Congress, however, decided to establish a system of federal trial courts with broader jurisdiction, thereby creating an arm for enforcement of national laws within each state.

Here’s Your Prompt:    In honor of the High Court’s “birthday,” make your own law. Do you ever say, “If I ran the world…” or “If I were king…” Well, here’s your chance. Make a law that only pertains to you, or your family, or your friends. Be serious or whimsical. Be long-winded or succinct. If you want to enact a law “for the good of all people,” make certain you outline the reasons why. Do you need to change some other laws to enact it? Go ahead. Provide the rationalization. If your law benefits only you (or your family, your friends, your friends, etc.)…well, you must be living in a tyranny. Explain how you came to be in power. How was the overthrow accomplished? In what way were the commoners brought to heel? Are they now for you, or against you? How does your new law affect them? Do you expect them to abide by it? If not, how do plan to control them?

Friday, September 17th, 2010

Friday Writing Prompt – Have a Conversation with a Stranger

Woman Picking at Acne - Image Courtesy of http://caryacnehelp.com/I spent some time at the dermatologist’s office today.

While I waited for my turn, I read my latest acquired book about writing and scribbled some notes.

After a while, a woman came out of the doctor’s office wearing a Dallas Cowboys football jersey, and hoots erupted around the waiting room.

This is Raven’s country, though there was a single Redskin’s fan and one lone “L.A. Rams” holdout – an older gentleman – in the waiting room, who stated that he was born and raised in L.A. County, but had been transplanted to Maryland some time ago.

There was a round of forgiveness once the woman spoke in a soft, Texas accent, about rooting for her home team.

After she left, the hum in the waiting room quieted, and I returned to my book. But a few moments later, a gentleman seated two seats away, turned to me and said, “You’re sure giving that book what for.”

I demurred, and explained that I was just taking a few notes. I showed him the book at his request, and then he’d asked me if I’d ever written anything. (That’s when I pulled out my handy-dandy bookmark listing some of the stuff I’ve published and handed it to him.) He told me he’d written a book, but just as quickly told me it had never been published. When I asked him why, he said:

“The war got in the way.”

And that’s when the conversation got really interesting.

He told me that when he was asked what kind of job he could do, he told his commanding officer that he drove trucks. So his CO made him a truck driver…of ammo trucks. That didn’t suit him at all, he said. (So, matter of fact, this far removed from the war!) And he’d tried to get away from doing it as fast as he could. His lucky break came when the chaplain’s assistant died (got blown up stepping on a landmine while hunting for deer) and he got to be the chaplain’s assistant.

What an awesome story! If I hadn’t needed to get to work, I would have stayed and talked after my appointment. What a life. I hope he’s written this down for his grandchildren.

Here’s Your Prompt:    Strike up a conversation with a stranger in a public place. (Repeating: in a public place.) Make it a good public place… not the post office (unless there are huge lines) or some other location where you’ll only meet people in passing. Choose somewhere where you’ll have time to pass a few moments. Ask a leading (polite) question, or compliment someone…anything to start the conversation. And then…listen.

If you’re lucky, you’ll meet as great a person as I did. (If not, you can always try again.)

Once you’ve chatted, take that conversation home and write about it. Fictionalize it, journal it, or write a biographical sketch.

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

A Mini Vacation Helps the (Writing) Process

Indian River Inlet - View from the Bow

A photo of “me,” and the view from the bow of the boat.

I was away for the weekend, but hadn’t planned to be away from working. I’ve got tons of editing to do.

I’d arrived around dinner time on Friday, booted up the laptop and checked mail and comments on my blog, and showed off a few photos to some folks. After a while, my laptop chirped and the little power light started blinking, and I knew it was time to plug in. Except…

…after digging around frantically in the huge laptop bag I carry, I realized I had left the power cord at home.

At first, I was horrified, but by Saturday morning, I felt totally liberated: I had plans, and I needn’t hurry back to get any work done. I couldn’t get any work done.

(Needless to say, I lingered on the water as long as I was able.)

Now, I’m raring to go. Sometimes a little break is all that’s needed.

Friday, September 10th, 2010

Friday Writing Prompt: Idea Swap

Kelly A. Harmon's 1st Annual Idea SwapSeptember 10 is “National Swap Idea Day.”

I’ve had some difficulties locating any truth in that statement…there’s nothing “national” about it, apparently. Yet all sources — even Hallmark– consider it “national” and grant it “holiday” status.

All sources agree that it’s more than just a day to swap ideas, it’s a day during which everyone should share ideas for helping each other out, making each others’ lives better, and helping out fellow man.

This source also encourages the use of a creative imagination.

I’m all for helping fellow man, and, from a writing point of view, I can see the advantages of sharing ideas with each other. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Everyone has an idea…the problem, sometimes, is in the execution of it.

The idea I have, I may not be able to satisfactorily complete.

Or, there are times when I want to write, and I’ve got a zillion ideas on my idea list, but none appeals.

So why not share with someone else?

Here’s Your Prompt:   Swap writing ideas with another writer. Give away the seeds of a story or novel that has been moldering in your journal (or your mind!), fruitless. Choose several of your most intriguing ideas, the ones which you really like, but for whatever reason, have been unable to devote the time to write them. Cast them away, like dead weights.

Now, accept the ideas of another writer. Read them. Write them in your own journal — or type them into your files — put them in the place you collect your own ideas. Give it a few hours, a few days, a week at most to percolate. With luck, you’ll be inspired sooner, rather than later. Now, write your story.

I wouldn’t be joining into the spirit of the day if I didn’t share some of my own ideas. Here are a few:

  • An author is haunted by the ghosts of characters he’s killed off.
  • A sudden sun shower, a field of dead trees, a human skeleton, a small whirlwind of dust, wild horses and sun-bleached papers
  • Worry not. Pray not. Don’t have one, don’t need the other.
  • A man on a bus, carrying his lunch–two slices of pizza–in a disposable grocery sack.

Good luck! Please share your stories.

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

Still Playing Name Games…

Hello My Name Is...This was supposed to be the entry full of character naming resources, but I’ve had a fun offer I want to tell you about.

Matt Marotta, the programmer of The Name Stooge software program, happened to wander by my blog as I was discussing character names. He offered me a free copy of his program – no strings attached.

Well, of course I couldn’t pass that up. And of course I’m going to tell you all about it. But the best part is: Matt’s going to give away some extra copies to readers of this blog!

We haven’t worked out the details yet…but keep your eyes here over the next week or two for the details. It’ll be something easy, like leaving a comment about characters, or maybe linking to mine or Matt’s blog.

Name Stooge is intended to help you choose the perfect name for your character. You enter a few bits of data:

  • Your character’s age and gender
  • When the story takes place
  • How common the name should be

…and it spits out the possibilities.

I like the idea that you can determine how common (or uncommon) the name is. And knowing when the story takes place helps to weed out names that weren’t used in a particular time period. (How many Brittany’s or Aiden’s were walking around in 1920?)

I’ve already installed the program (very easy to do) but it’s begging me to register before I take it for a test drive. And you know my litany: I’ve got some writing to do…

So, look for a review of the Name Stooge software sometime in the next week or so…at which time you’ll get your opportunity to score your own copy.

Friday, August 27th, 2010

Writing Prompt – Weather, the Number 1 News Story Daily

Lightning Bolt and TwisterWhen I was a freshman journalism major, the teacher asked what I thought was a trick question:

What’s the number-one news story today ?

(It was a big deal to get this question right: the professor worked at a large radio station and always had lots of swag to give away. The person who responded correctly would receive a coffee mug.)

I don’t remember the various answers that were called out. But I do remember the hunky guy across the aisle asking if it were about rain.

He almost got the mug.

The answer: the weather.

Weather is all the rage. It’s the first thing people want to know when they get up in the morning. It’s what they wait for on the evening news each night. Some folks get email alerts or install browser plugins so that they’ll always know what to expect. It’s imperative to know whether or not to carry an umbrella tomorrow, or if they should stay in for lunch. Vacations are planned around it.

Sunset on the Beach with Kids Playing
(I myself have driven as many as six hours in pursuit of sunshine.)

We no longer think of weather as a gift (or scourge) of the gods, yet the elements are still credited with significance in our lives. On the eve of my wedding, during the rehearsal and dinner afterward, the skies opened up and rain came down so hard and fast that the streets of Baltimore were flooded. Water rose atop the curbs and gushed over the sidewalks.

Worried. I was worried about the morning. Okay, I was a little excited about the storm, I admit, but I certainly didn’t want a torrential downpour on the day of my wedding. What would that signify? I thought. Who wants to begin a life of marital bliss with that kind of omen?

Here’s Your Prompt: Think of a time when the weather — or the elements in general — played a major role in your life. You don’t have to choose a significant event, like a wedding, but any situation in which the weather was pivotal.

Be creative. Discard the first three events that come to mind (I’ll bet they’ll be similar to my own weak example: it rained when I was looking for sunshine). Maybe you got snowed in at a friend’s house. What happened? Maybe February has been 27 days of bleak, watery daylight and sleet, but the 28th dawned bright and clear and seventy-two degrees. How did you take advantage of it? Maybe that flash-flood washed away the pick-up, but it saved the crops.

If you’ve never been affected in your life (really?) by the weather, make something up:

  • Pretend you’re in high school serving detention with someone you despise and a freak storm blows the electricity. The teacher goes off to find some flashlights and you’re stuck with that person, in the dark, and it’s getting stuffy in the classroom without any airflow. Write the conversation you might have.
  • Pretend it’s October and you’re walking outside in a crisp autumn night. Is there a moon in the sky, or cloud cover? What do you hear and smell? Are leaves burning? Does the wind rustle the leaves? Are you scared? Or, does the cool air invigorate you? What goes through your mind as you experience the elements?
  • It’s snowing: tiny flurries spiraling down out of the sky, blanketing the ground and lessening visibility. Three feet or more has been predicted, and you can’t help yourself, you’re as giddy as a kid. With that kind of weather, you know that secondary roads will be blocked: you won’t have to go to work. But you wake up in the morning and there’s only a dusting. You’re groggy and disappointed, and you have to head off to work. Write all about it.
  • Etc.
Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Poor Dick Filthey, Or, Rules for Character Names Part II

I’m continuing my discussion on naming characters for your novels. If you missed Part I, and the reference to poor Dick Filthey, see this post.

A Few Special Rules for Writers of Fantasy and Science Fiction

There are a few special rules pertaining to writers of fantasy and science fiction that authors should consider before settling on a name. These are:

  1. Choose a Name that Readers Can Pronounce
    This goes for both genre and non-genre characters, but I’m cataloging it here because I think authors often shoot for inventive, alien-sounding names for characters when they’re building their stories from the ground up. If you’re creating an entire world or planet, surely you’ll be creating names, too, eh?

    So, if you make it up, please, make certain it’s pronounceable.

    Even if you don’t make it up, it pays to choose wisely. If your story is set, for example, in Italy or Ireland (or a locale that resembles Italy or Ireland), it’s too easy to pick an “exotic” sounding name (ahem, like Salvagia or Theodicar) which may bother some readers.

    (An aside: even run-of-the-mill names can become unpronounceable after a while. Try reading Benjamin or Kristiana over and over again. It becomes tiresome. Your readers may nickname your characters Ben and Kris – completely negating what you had in mind.)

  2. Nix the Apostrophes
    Why ‘do some fantasy writers in’ject so many ap’ostro’phes in their char’acter n’ames? Author James Clemen’s Banished and Banned series begins with Wi’tch Fire. In Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, the wise wizard is named Zeddicus Zu’l Zorander.

    The problem is not with the apostrophe, per se, but 1) where they’re placed in the word (Wi’tch, really ?) and 2) the frequency in which they’re used…not to mention they’re just one more stumbling block for the reader. Why make it hard?

    (Another aside: a few years ago the Evil Overlady decreed that all apostrophes in the middle of fantasy names are to be pronounced, “boing.” Thus James Clemen’s book becomes Wi-boing-tch and Goodkin’s wizard becomes Zu-boing-l Zorander. I find this endlessly hilarious. You should, too.)

  3. Don’t Mix Exotic with Prosaic
    Using the Goodkind example again: he’s named the wizard Zeddicus Zu’l Zorander, and a witch Shota, but the wielder of the sword is named plain ol’ Richard. In worldbuilding, the author should look at the whole…which isn’t to say that the names can’t be different. In my novella, Blood Soup, the Omarans have Italian-sounding names, the Borgunds are all Germanic. They’re different, but the rules of my world allow for that.

As I said last time, just because I refer to these as “rules,” it’s not necessary to adhere to anyone of them – but keeping them in mind while naming characters can only be helpful to the process, and perhaps prevent a few embarrassing names.

Next Time: Naming Resources

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

Poor Dick Filthey, or, Rules for Character Names Part 1

Dick Filthey Logic Puzzle

I love logic puzzles.

They’re are often written tongue-in-cheek and rely heavily on puns, but I guffawed over the moniker, “Dick Filthey” in this puzzle I worked recently about bad reporters writing for the Daily Muckraker. It led me to thinking about naming the characters in my stories and novels.

Character names are vital. A good one becomes part of the character’s entire persona, lending credibility, resonating with readers, even adding subtly to the subtext or theme of the story. A bad name will toss a reader out of the story and have them laughing, or cringing, each time it’s read. It may even turn your book into a wallbanger.

Names should be accepted  by the reader, not analyzed or dissected for meaning. They should enhance without being obvious.

Here are some things I try to keep in mind when choosing names:

  1. Choose a name that reflects the character.
    If your hero is (for example) strong and charismatic, name him something that sounds, or can be perceived as, strong or charismatic. Of course there’s a bit of a judgment call here, but Robert or James beats Biff any day of the week in my book.

    This logic applies to the heroine in the book as well. If she totes a gun or drives a starship, you probably don’t want to name her Sissy.

  2. Choose a name that reflects the time period.
    Do your research. If you write steampunk, for example, you’ll want to choose Victorian-age names such as Liza or Benedict and refrain from using modern appellations such as Aiden or Britney. (Here’s a fun Steampunk Name Generator.)
  3. Choose a name that reflects the region or ethnicity of your story.
    This should go without saying, but if your story is set in Italy (for example) you’ll want your character’s names to reflect the region (unless they are simply visiting  Italy). Name your character Paulo instead of Paul or Lucia instead of Lucy.
  4. Don’t name your characters with similar sounding names.
    This is especially terrible if you have more than a few characters. Similar sounding names can cause confusion, making it difficult to keep them separate (not to mention that it gets hard on the ears) to read only about, John, Jacob and Jessica.
  5. Don’t worry about the hidden meanings of names.
    Many baby name lists also supply an origin or meaning of a name…but limiting yourself to choosing a name that means “strong” or “pretty” or “wise” can lead to bad choices. Keep in mind: how many people actually know the hidden meanings of names?

Minor Rules
These rules are less important (in my opinion) than those above, but still valid.

  1. Don’t use names ending in “s.”
    Names ending in “s” can be difficult when using the possessive form. (Do you use ‘s or s’?)
  2. Don’t use the name of someone famous.
    It’s not a bad idea to check out the name you’ve chosen in a good internet search engine. You may have picked a famous (or infamous!) name without realizing it. Maybe the reason your name sounds “so perfect” is because you’ve heard it before.

  3. Avoid “Cute” Spellings.
    It’s trendy to find an alternate spelling for common names these days, but why make the reader figure out that “Chehllie” is pronounced “Kelly”?

  4. Avoid Gender Neutral Names
    Who’s the male lead, Chris or Pat or Sam? Maybe it’s Terry? This list grows yearly as names such as Taylor and McKenzie are added to the mix. Androgynous names really only pose a problem at the beginning of the story, until the reader sorts out who is who…but again, why make it hard for the reader?

Although I’ve called these “the rules,” it’s not necessary to abide by any of them. In fact, I’ve broken more than one or two of these in many of the stories I’ve written. It’s when more than a few of them are broken in the same story that trouble starts to happen. It pays to be cognizant of the overall picture when you’re naming your characters.

Next Time: Genre Writing and Names


Writing-World.com – A long list of name resources on the internet.

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

A Fair is a Veritable Smorgasbord…

I went to the county fair on Saturday. Cool and overcast, the day was perfect for strolling.

Anytime I think of a fair, Charlotte’s Web pops into my mind and I start singing ala Templeton the rat:

A fair is a veritable smorgasbord orgasbord orgasbord…

Melon rinds and bits of hotdogs
Cookie crumbs and rotton cotton candy
Melted ice cream, mustard dripplings
Moldy goodies everywhere

Lots of popcorn, apple cores
Bananna peels and soggy sadwiches
And gobs of gorgeous gook to gobble at the fair

There’s more, but you get the idea, right?

Like Templeton, I’m on a mission when those gates open: to sample whatever I can. Alas, this year, there were no deep-fried oreos or twinkies, so I had to settle for regular fare.

But who doesn’t like pit beef, chocolate-dipped soft ice cream, funnel cake and french fries…?

And yet: I was there for more than the food. I was looking for story ideas…

(What, do you think I can go anywhere and not  think about writing?)

I chalk up all the story sleuthing to my journalism training wherein I learned: there could be a story in anything…

…even odors.

I walked by a vendor and remarked to my Husband of Awesome™, “Something smells lemony and sweet and… mmmm.” (Unintentionally, it sounded kinda sexy, but falls flat in the re-telling. Just pretend for a moment, ‘k?)

I’m still trying to find the words to describe that fragrance. They’ll come.

A few steps later, we walked by an obvious patch of vomit. Remember I mentioned it was cloudy? The odor was obnoxious, but not as bad as it could have been on a humid, sunny day.

What if it were lemony, sweet…vomit? There’s a story there, I know.

And take this chicken, for example:

Chicken Pulling Out His Own Feathers

In the fowl barn, lined with cages and cages of gorgeous, plump roosters and hens and ducks, this poor specimen was pulling his own feathers out. I snapped a few photos. The flash startled him up to face me, but he returned to his picking almost immediately. (Was it the two prize hens on either side causing him grief? Maybe he just didn’t like being caged…?)

The rabbit barn sported one empty cage with a sign on it, “Gone home to have babies! Have a happy fair!”

How about this sheep? It’s called a Jacob Sheep (I’d never seen one before. Aren’t all those horns cool?) Both the males and females sprout horns, and some of them will grow six at once.

Jacob Sheep

I also fired my camera into the crowd to see what turns up. I’m not publishing those photos here, but looking at them reveals a host of ideas in a single image: the 4-H girls in their short-shorts and shi–stomping boots, the disheveled carny folk with their bright orange shirts and world-weary expressions, an amazing number of very young children wandering by themselves.

My favorite photo is of a group of teens, perhaps 20, sitting on benches watching the crowd stroll by. Each of them had a notebook and was writing furiously. School’s not in session until next week. What were they writing about?

Even if there’s no complete story in what I witnessed at the fair, there are scads of images I can pepper my stories with, and I’ve got the pictures to prove it.

What can you find at your local coffee shop? Or see on the bus? On campus? At the ballpark?