Being a Better Writer: The Thought Process

So, today’s topic actually came to me only yesterday morning whilst on my flight home. I was at 30,000 feet (or whatever cruising altitude was for that flight) and suitably armed, as is my custom, with every type of boredom-defense I can fit in my backpack that will work on an airplane. At the moment, my tool of choice was two-fold: My Zune (yes, I have a Zune, and it has endured eight years and far, far more punishment than any other MP3 player my immediate family has tried), and my kindle. Which means that yes, I was a reading, and perhaps—okay, definitely—reading with a critical eye.

Anyway, I noticed something as I read through the first few chapters. It was something that I’ve observed before in other books, but because this book actually shifted its own stance as it moved into later chapters, my attention was captured by it all the more closely. I noted the absolute lack of “it” in the early chapters, and then as the story moved on, “it” began to appear more and more, changing the tone of the book as it came. The more “it” showed up, the happier with the book I became, as, I would hazard, did the author.

What was “it?” Well, to be honest, it was something quite simple. Something very straightforward and elegant, but something that still misses entire books.

It was the character thinking.

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Being a Better Writer: Should I Build a Plot Structure?

Today I’m going to be tackling a topic by request. Now, it’s not a topic I’ve not heard discussed before. Or, to put that in a clearer context, this is a question that crops up with fair regularity in writing groups, classes, and cons … But it’s also not one of the more common questions because it implies a bit more forethought. Not that those who aren’t asking it aren’t thinking, but rather that those who tend to ask this question, at least as I see it, are probing for a bit more detail, making a bit of a “I should look before I leap” observation.

The question is: Should I build a plot structure?

Okay, there’s a bit more to it than that. Most of the time the writer asking this question isn’t really asking whether or not they should. What they’re asking is why they should or shouldn’t.

Shouldn’t? Oh yes. There are definitely cases where a plot structure might not be in your best interest, or even harmful to the overall story. Perhaps a better way to interpret this question then, is when should I build a plot structure?

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Being a Better Writer: Is It Original or Copying?

So, you’ve just finished your first manuscript. You’re excited, maybe even a little ecstatic, because at long last, you’ve finished the darn thing! You pass it off to someone to read, probably a friend or family member, and then they say a phrase that strikes terror down on your heart.

“Oh,” they say, staring at your work. “I get it. This is like The Lord of the Rings, isn’t it?”

It doesn’t have to be The Lord of the Rings. Nor do the words they speak need to be “Oh, it’s like this.” They might say “This reminds me of the stuff from Star Wars.” Or start talking about the similarities between your work and another author they read recently.

Regardless, you’re probably hearing and thinking only one thing: That this person is saying your work isn’t your own at all, but someone else’s. And now the panic is starting to set in. Maybe they’re right. Maybe your work is nothing more than a cheap rewrite of someone else’s. How could you not see it before? After all, your main character is an orphan boy who is taken to a strange place to learn magic, and that’s totally the plot of Harry Potter! You’re a fraud! All your work has been for nothing!

Or has it? Maybe it’s time to take a deep breath, let it out, and cool those racing thoughts. After all, your story does star a young orphan who lives with his aunt and uncle who’s about to be taken away to a strange place to learn magic. That was Harry Potter, right? Wait, no … That was Star Wars … Hang on a moment; who are you copying again?

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Being a Better Writer: Hard and Soft Openings

This post was originally written and posted July 28th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

So, a few weeks ago I talked about writing an opening chapter. It wasn’t a bad blog post, but as some pointed out, it was purely about structure and structure alone. There was nothing covering any of the other bits and pieces that went into an opening chapter.

This was, admittedly, a failure on my part. One that today I mean to rectify. So, once again I’m going to talk about openings, but this time from another perspective. I’m going to talk about the type of opening you choose to have for your work.

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Being a Better Writer: Creative? Or Copy?

So a few months ago I picked up a fantasy book from the library. Pretty good book, actually; it kept me gripped well enough and had me staying up into the early hours of the morning to see how it panned out. But there was something interesting about it that I felt applied to today’s topic.

You see, after a while, the book started to feel … familiar. It was, as I said, fantasy, about a young boy whose home village was razed by dragons. His family was killed and the village ruined, leaving him the only survivor. A day later, a bunch of men showed up to strip the village remains bare, and, in the process they grabbed him and sold him into slavery.

From there the book followed a fairly traditional path. His early childhood in some underground mines. His eventual escape. His learning the ways of the world while on the lamb, falling into just enough money that he could hire a man to train him in the art of the sword and survival. Because this boy—now a young man—had a goal. Revenge. On those that sold him into slavery and the dragons that had wrecked his home.

And the whole time I was reading this book, I couldn’t help but feel that something about it was familiar. And I’m not referring to the classic trope bit of “young man adventures into the world” either. No, that was pretty general. This felt even more familiar than that. Like I’d read the story before. But I still couldn’t figure out exactly why.

It wasn’t until this young man made contact with a long-thought-lost trade route and returned to the capital city of the nation with an absolutely massive fortune, buying an old palace to wow the citizenry with as part of his revenge scheme, that it finally clicked. I was reading The Count of Monte Cristo. Fantasy edition.

I finished the book. The realization didn’t make me enjoy it any less. In fact, once I saw what was going on I actually enjoyed it a little more. Once I saw the initial inspiration (or at least, the classic that it was spinning into part of its cloth) I had quite a bit of fun comparing the two as well as seeing how the universe the author had made necessitated certain changes and guessing what those changes would be.

But at the end of the day, it’s undeniable that what I had read was basically a fantasy version of The Count of Monte Cristo, complete with dragons and magic, rather than Napoleon.

So, why tell this story? Because I think it illustrates an important facet of today’s topic. Which brings us right to the matter at hand. Was this book creativity in action? Or was it just a copy?

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Being a Better Writer: That Opening Chapter

This post was originally written and posted June 30th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

So this weekend I discovered my legal theory on what constitutes an explosive of reasonable size is a lot shakier than I thought. Also, that brick walls aren’t nearly as sturdy as you’d think when you’re dealing with homemade fireworks.

Untrue, actually. None of what you just read up above actually happened. At least, not in that particular order, or to that extreme. But, it was a bit of an interesting opening, wasn’t it?

Good, because today, that’s what we’re going to talk about: Giving your work a strong opening chapter. Because let’s face it: Every story starts. Your challenge as a writer is to start things off in a way that not only grabs your reader’s attention and interest (you want them to keep reading, after all), but also gives them a good idea of what to expect in the chapters ahead.

As I thought about this topic (quite a few of you have asked me about it), I realized that at least, for me, the subject was fairly simple. Not because the act of creating the first chapter isn’t difficult, but because over the years I’ve built a pretty solid guideline for what an opening chapter should include, a guideline that starts right where at the beginning and then expands through the chapter, guiding my writing process. So today, I’m going to explain that process that I go through, what each of the steps are, and how they come together in then to build a cohesive first chapter that gets your reader right into the story and keeps them reading.

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Being a Better Writer: Keeping Motivation on Longer Works

Welcome back, everyone! Being a Better Writer has returned at last! I know it’s only been two weeks since the last post, but honestly, with all that’s going on it felt like quite a bit longer.

Anyway, today we have a requested topic from the new topic list to tackle (remember that call for topics a few weeks ago?), and it’s an interesting one. It’s also a topic that I’ve tackled in part before (though that post hasn’t been reposted here, sorry!), but this time there was a new wrinkle added to the mix. Where before the question was just “Motivation while writing,” this time the question of length came into the equation.

Specifically, the reader wanted to know: how does one keep motivation up while working on a longer work?

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Being a Better Writer: I, Villain

This post was originally written and posted June 9th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Advance Warning: today’s post is going to involve copious amounts of spoilers from everything from games to movies to books. Most of them will be fairly obvious and over a year in age, but I’m giving this whole entry an advance warning anyway. Spoilers be beyond here.

Villains.

I think it says something about us that while some can’t name a favorite hero, almost everyone can remember a favorite villain (or “not favorite,” as the case may be). Darth Vader. Truth. Smaug. Agent Smith.Brother Jon. The Lord Ruler. The Joker.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. The point is, you can ask just about anyone who their “favorite” villain is, the one who gave them shivers as a child or as an adult, and most of them will be able to think of someone. Villains are just as much a part of a good story as anything else. They haunt our heroes’ nightmares and waking moments, stalk them from behind the scenes, threaten them and their loved ones. Or maybe they don’t even notice the hero at first, too preoccupied with their quest for power as they dominate nations. Or maybe, just maybe, they’re on the heroes’ “side,” carefully playing within the rules—but only just, all while smiling a sickly sweet grin that promises future darkness.

So today, I’m taking a request topic, and we’re going to talk about villains—good ones. We’re going to talk about how you make an antagonist that sits in your reader’s mind, that’s just as memorable as the hero is, who worries your fans every time they make an appearance. The kind that haunts your reader’s mind long after the book is gone, that sits in the back of their head like a song they can’t stop thinking about. So buckle up, because here we go. Continue reading

Being a Better Writer: Perspectives

Perspective. It’s important.

I’ll be honest, part of me right now simply wants to link that wonderful scene from Pixar’s Ratatouille wherein Anton Ego sits down for a meal and orders “perspective.” Mostly just because it’s a fun scene, and Anton is such a fun character. I mean, his nickname is “The Grim Eater,” what’s not to love about that?

But ultimately, we’re talking about a different type of perspective today. Well, different types, to be more specific. Today’s matter comes as consequence of a number of online posts in writer’s groups and the like I’ve seen where younger writers inquire after differences in perspective (some of them not even knowing much more other than that the different types exist) and what those perspectives are used best for. Along with that, I’ve seen misconceptions (such as there is a “magic-bullet” perspective for certain genre’s) and confusion (such as responses that only provide half answers).

So today? I’m diving into perspectives. Nothing fancy, we’re simply going to look at each perspective type and talk about it. What makes it tick, how it’s used, where you might have seen it or run across it before … the works.

Like I said, nothing fancy. Let’s get to it!

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Being a Better Writer: Setting Sights Higher

Today’s topic, despite its lateness, is one that I feel is important. It’s not a long topic, nor do I think it will take much time to discuss, but it’s something that needs to be said.

Set your sights higher.

In fairness, that’s a good statement … but it’s also pretty vague. So, what am I actually talking about? Let’s start with a little backstory.

Over the years, I’ve noticed a common trend with new writers, young writers, those who come into writing classes or want advice on their stories: They go right for the first thing that enters their minds. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, we have to start somewhere, and that’s how a lot of writers get started. They think of an idea, and they want to write it, so they do.

This isn’t bad. At least, not necessarily. Like I said, everyone has to start somewhere.

The problem is that for many of these writers, they don’t see it as the start, the first stepping stone. They see it as the end goal. Not as their end goal (ie, I want to do this as a hobby and hey look, I did it, so I’m good), but they see it as the end-all. All they need to do is write that one story and everything will be good. They’ll be done, and they’ll have a hit one their hands, a gold standard story.

And the truth is, it really isn’t like that.

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