For the past few years I’ve begun each year writing short stories for an anthology workshop. Those of us participating spend six weeks writing a story a week. We’re given a theme on Monday morning and the story must be submitted by midnight the following Sunday.
The first year, the schedule terrified me. What if I couldn’t come up with an idea and get it written within the allotted time? Aaaggghhh! But I managed to meet each deadline and even sold one of the stories! (Two more eventually sold to other venues.)
Last year I succeeded in writing all six stories again and this time sold two to the anthologies they were written for…and sold two others later to other venues. Not bad!
But the problem came after the writing. Once we finished writing our own stories, we were asked to read all the others in order to prepare for the workshop. Now, this is an awesome opportunity! To get to read all those professional level short stories? Absolute coolness! Unfortunately, in order to accomplish all the required reading AND continue to live my normal work-a-day + family life, the awesome writing habit I’d established fell by the wayside. Both years!
THIS year, I’m determined to change that outcome. I’ve completed my six stories for this year’s workshop and am now deep into the reading phase. However, this year I’m making time to continue the story-a-week habit I’ve begun.
I’m proud to say that I finished a flash fiction story yesterday…and then read another bunch of amazing stories by my fellow workshoppers!
I’m 5 stories for 5 weeks so far in 2016! Wish me luck in continuing my streak. After all, while it’s great to START the New Year well, what matters is maintaining the writing habit I’ve established.
Here’s to a successful and productive 2016!
I’ve been doing some research / study on originality in fiction. Remembering the conventional wisdom that there are only so many plots in the world, and all of them have been done many times…and by the masters, how do contemporary writers have a hope of writing original, unique works?
One persistent response is “voice”, that elusive element that marks your work as your own. Something that an individual writer often can’t recognize in their own work, but that others read and say, “Oh. Of course. That’s a Deb Logan story.”
But more than voice, where does originality reside? Is it in a gimmick? Some little detail that no one else has thought of that an author can build their plot (which has been done before…and by the masters) around?
I decided to look at three of my favorite series and see what insights I could gain. Each of these three has a distinct gimmick…but is that the answer to their uniqueness? Let’s see.
- Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer – Colfer built an entire series of eight middle grade fantasy novels around an imaginative bit of word play: leprechaun = LEP Recon (Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance). I love that … wish I’d thought of it first *lol* I heard Colfer speak once and he revealed another bit about why this series is so original: he based the main character, Artemis Fowl—who begins the series as a 12-year-old criminal mastermind—on his older brother, thereby pulling in Colfer’s own emotional history. It’s a delightful series with a great character arc leavened with lots of age-appropriate humor.
- Storm Front by Jim Butcher – The first book of Butcher’s Dresden Files series introduces us to Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, a contemporary wizard living and working in Chicago. It’s the little touches that really make Harry unique – the fact that he advertises in the yellow pages under “W for Wizard”; his sidekick and helper, Bob, is a disembodied spirit who lives in a skull and loves romance novels; his cat, with the nondescript name of Mister; and eventually his dog, Mouse, a gentle giant with magic of his own – a Tibetan Temple dog (Foo dog). All through this series Butcher creates memorable and unique characters, giving them a life of their own while breaking traditional stereotypes. (His vampires are truly terrifying…and completely original.)
- Outlander by Diana Gabaldon – this series could be described as time-travel romance, but you’d be limiting its scope. Diana’s gimmick is that Claire Randall, a nurse who has just survived WWII, is sucked back in time through a circle of Scottish standing stones. Doesn’t sound all that original, but her characterization is amazing. Diana writes really LONG novels, and there are eight in this series (so far) all centering on the passionate love of ONE couple: Claire and Jamie. I don’t know many writers capable of keeping me interested in the life and love of a single couple over that many words, but she pulls it off. Plus, her main characters jump from being in their late 20’s in the first book, to nearing 50 in the 2nd, and the relationship remains just as intense.
Interesting. A good gimmick is great to start the ideas flowing (LEP-Recon; Wizard for hire; time-travel), but what makes the story original ultimately is the depth of characterization and the author’s own emotional history woven into those characters. All of these books have characters that I love as well as characters that I love to hate.
Each of these writers has created characters so real, that I feel like I know them … and not just the heroes. Even the secondary characters have personalities so distinct that I can recognize them from dialogue alone.
Which leads me to conclude that originality, uniqueness, memorability, isn’t a function of the gimmick or the plot as much as it is a by-product of characters so real they leap off the page and drag you into their lives, loves, and adventures.
What do you think? What makes your favorite books memorable for you?
Posted by Kristen S. Walker
Serialized novels have become a popular way to publish stories in the past few years. Some of the advantages of publishing as a serial include readers getting new parts of the story on a regular basis as it’s being written, instead of having to wait a long time for the whole novel to be finished; and authors can get feedback (and sometimes money) for their writing while they’re still working. But serial novels aren’t a new invention that happened on the internet.
In the 19th century, most novels in the U.S., Britain, and across Europe were actually published serially. Famous works like Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin were published with a new chapter every week or month in magazines and newspapers. When the story was complete, all of the parts would be collected in a single volume, which is how we read these novels today. But when they first appeared, readers would wait for the story in installments, which could be spread out over an entire year.
This method of publishing fell out of fashion with the invention of broadcast radio and television. Today, we think of episodes in a television series as multi-part stories, but written fiction comes out in books once every year or two. Only a handful of novels were published as serials during the 20th century.
But when the internet made it easy for anyone to publish their stories, serialized fiction made a come back. It started with amateur writers posting stories on their own websites, forums, and newsgroups. Then sites sprang up for writers to share free stories more easily, like Fanfiction.net. Now there are too many of these communities to name, where thousands of free stories are shared, talked about, and rated by readers and writers.
With widespread ebooks distribution, professional authors gained the ability to sell these serials online. Unlike printing where there are limitations on the length of stories that can be economically printed and distributed, digital works can easily be shorter (or longer) than the limited range of traditional novels. Now serialized novels, or series of connected novellas or episodes, are gaining popular readership in stores like Amazon and Smashwords.
After seeing how well serials work for other authors, I’m starting to experiment with serials. Last year, I posted a novel, Witch Hunt, on Wattpad for free at the rate of one chapter a day for NaNoWriMo. I did get some feedback as I wrote, but I found that most readers couldn’t keep up with that pace, and I’ve seen that most successful authors on Wattpad write at the rate of one or two chapters a week. I revised that novel and put it on sale—and surprisingly, even after I gave it away for free first, there are still readers willing to buy it!
Then this summer, Holly Lisle challenged writers on her How To Think Sideways site to write and publish a monthly serial as part of her How To Write A Series course. Following her advice, I’ve started a series of novellas using characters from my established Wyld Magic universe. The first episode, The Voyage of the Miscreation #1: “ The Voyage Begins,” was published last week. I’m excited to see how the series turns out as more episodes come out. Hopefully, I can engage readers who look forward to getting a piece of the story every month.
Have you ever read a serialized novel? How did you feel about having to wait for the next part of the story to come out? What rate do you think is good for new parts to come out?
Information about the history of serial novels from Wikipedia.
I’ve been thinking about genre recently. The genres I prefer to read…and the genres I choose to write.
I know the defining characteristics of genre. I can tell the difference between fantasy, science fiction, and mystery. I can even tell when they overlap (I’ve been reading a very good series by Kristine Kathryn Rusch which melds science fiction with mystery. If you haven’t met Retrieval Artist Miles Flint, I highly recommend you do so quickly :D ), but where in the story does genre reside?
Let’s look at the bare bones of a story: A character – in a setting – with a problem.
What part of that equation represents genre? I’m going to posit that genre resides in the setting.
The character has to be relatable to the reader, someone the reader can identify with and care about. Even if the character is an alien, s/he has to have enough “humanity” to allow the reader inside his/her skin. So, genre doesn’t reside in character.
The problem also has to be relatable. Something the reader understands and can identify with. So no matter the genre, the problem must be of a common enough nature to allow the reader to care whether or not the character solves it. Nope, the problem (plot) doesn’t represent genre.
Setting is where genre resides. Science fiction settings are vastly different from fantasy settings. Mysteries can take place in a sci-fi or fantasy setting, but then they aren’t classified as mysteries (unless the setting is so minimally sci-fi as to make it almost invisible – JD Robb’s “In Death” series fits this bill).
Romance is character-centric with the essential element residing in relationship, but romance also transcends all the genres. You name a genre, and there’s a romance sub-genre covering it.
So, setting, and how the character understands and interacts with the setting, is where genre resides.
In order to write science fiction, an author doesn’t have to be a scientist. S/he just needs to imagine a rich enough world (setting) for the reader to know that the characters don’t live on our planet / in our time / or within our current understanding of the physical universe.
Back to the bones of story: A character the reader can identify with (thereby gaining access to the story) – in a setting (which determines the genre) – with a problem (which defines the plot).
What do you think?
Posted by petercruikshank
Probably, the number-one question I get when I meet someone at a party, and they find out I am an author is: “How do you come up with the ideas for your stories?”
Naturally, I tell them “I turn inward, using my keen introspective to dig deep within my soul for the story.”
After they ‘oww’ and ‘ahh’ over my artistic creative ability, I then tell them, “That’s not really true, in reality, I owe it all to Willow!
First the eyes go wide, and they want to know, “Who’s Willow?”
“My Muse of course.”
Their eyes narrow as the person glares at me like I just dropped out of the sky from the human-like planet of Torenlia (which is just a hop, skip, and jump over in our nearest neighbor, the Alpha Centauri solar system). I especially love it when their nose squishes up like a rabbit.
“But it’s true. It really is,” I tell them.
Then I get The Smile, and they say, “Oh, you mean your imagination. Cute.” It’s a bonus when they shake their heads and roll their eyes.
“But I actually hear Willow talking to me.” I have the story down pat and try to keep a smile on my face the entire time, hoping it will help my case, but I know my next words will only add to their disbelief. “And after I come up with the basic concept, the characters start to converse with me, though not nearly as often or as a clear as Willow.” After all I don’t want to seem crazy.
Oops, narrowed eyes again. “It’s just you using the right side of your brain versus the left, correct?”
I can see the look of incredulity, though it is somewhat difficult through the slit their eyelids have become.
“Yes and No.”
That gets me a frown.
“It is somewhat true in that the right side of your brain tends to look at pictures and events as a whole, opposed to the left side, which looks at sequential steps to make a whole come together.” I don’t bother to go in the study of right and left sides of the brain, but just continue, “But Willow draws from both sides to provide me the images and the flow I need to come up with a story idea. And I can actually hear her voice, the inflection and everything.” By the way, it has a bit of a southerly draw to it, like found in the deep south of the USA, with a southern California overlay.
“So it is just in your own mind?” Their face lights up like they proved a point, but then the lips twist or similar facial expressions appear that reveal their hesitancy. “There really isn’t a Willow is there?”
I have to smile myself now as I have them thinking, maybe, just maybe. “Let me give you an example of how I come up with a new story idea.” I don’t want to make it all about me (well yes I do), but after all, they did ask me.
“I was on a family outing to the zoo, and decided to take a break, just away by myself to commune with the animals. Actually, I was looking for a beer garden, but that really isn’t pertinent. However, while I was walking around (looking for the ‘commune garden’) I turned a corner and there was an enclosure of meerkats. Their little butts sticking out of dozens of caves in the ground, dirt flying behind them as their long claws dug further under the surface.” I take a dramatic pause; which works out nicely as I can also take a sip from my glass of wine.
The momentary break also gave me time to consider something that had always bothered me. What happened when the meerkats had created a honeycomb of tunnels that would cause the ground to collapse? Then I rationalized that maybe zookeepers came in at night and filled in some of the caves. But I digress.
I pick up the story, “What really caught my attention, and made me block out the zoo visitors and all the other meerkats, was the one meerkat sitting upright on its hind legs, at the highest point in the enclosure. Its head darted from side-to-side looking for a threat to the clan below. This one meerkat was giving up its favorite pastime, digging (which I still don’t get), to look after its family, its clan. After a while, another member of the clan took its place and the new meerkat continued the constant guard duty. “
I would get a lot of responses, at this point, from “I knew that.” to “Yeah, I’ve seen them do that. They almost seem human.” And this is normally followed with a well veiled comment like “Interesting.”; which can be translated to, “So what?”
Nevertheless, I push onward. “Like everyone else, I am amazed at the organizational instinct and loyalty to family and clan, but then I sort of zone out, and I can actually see someone. Well, to tell the truth, I don’t see them, but I can feel them as if they are standing next to me and I can tell you what they look like.”
I have to talk fast now, or I know I will lose them. “Then I hear ‘What if it was dragons rather than meerkats?’”
My educated response is ‘Huh?’
“The voice continues ‘What if there was a clan of dragons that lived in caves?’ This voice starts to feed my mind with images. ‘The caves could even be in the ground rather than on a mountain. And what if the older dragons took turns perched on a high peak, above the clan, looking for danger, so they could warn the rest of the clan?’ A landscape starts to fill my mind. I start to picture the concept — a desert or a forested area, with a lot of small hills with cave entrances cut into them, and a lone spire that rises above the hills, where the dragons stand guard. I’ve got the concept, and this is where my right brain would have done its duty, but then Willow gives me more.”
“So that is how you come up with a story?” They still don’t look convinced.
“Yes and No.”
“That is part of it, but there is more to it than that.” I always get to this point and find it hard to describe what happens, but I try nonetheless, “Willow takes these images from my imagination, if you will, and starts putting them in a sequential manner. Then she says ‘What if there were other clans, and the clans didn’t get along, just like meerkat clans? However, the clans must come together with the help of a small group of humans (got to have a group of humans) to combat some great evil that would otherwise devour both humans and dragons alike.’”
“That sounds kind of cool.” I can see a bit of excitement in their expression.
So I drop the bomb. “Then one of the main characters, a dragon, starts telling me how it wondered what these puny humans that had intruded on the clan’s nest wanted from it?” I think they thought I was maybe kidding earlier about characters talking to me.
At this point, I normally get one of two responses.
The first one is “Really? You hear voices?” And then I can count to myself, and before I reach ten, they will have to go refill their drink or just saw someone they needed to talk with.
The second one is “Really? That must be so cool!” And they will spend the next hour pumping me for more information about how I write and my stories.
But the bottom-line is that a tale is born. Or at least that is what Willow tells me.
How do you find inspiration and come up with the story line for your tales?
Book beginnings and middles give way to endings. If the beginning of your book doesn’t grab the reader, then she or he (usually) won’t read further. If the middles, and ending of your book are not satisfying to a reader, then you’ve lost that reader. Simple wisdom? Yes, but how many books have you read this year that disappointed you? I read several books a week and I have read several this year by writers that lost me as a reader. (As an aside here, I know that all readers will never be pleased with any book.) So how do we keep our story so readers stay satisfied?
According to my mental mentor-writer, Phyllis A. Whitney, suspense is one important key. That doesn’t mean you must have dozens of dead bodies strewn around in your novel. There must be a problem, there must be conflict, there must be a goal. Your main character must be actively involved in solving the problem(s) and in the conflict. If your character just drifts along, letting things happen to her, soon your reader may be yawning and putting your book down. Action is needed.
The more unexpected, unforseen, and unpredictable the outcome, the stronger the story interest, the stronger the suspense. Urgency–if possible, a time limit–increases suspense. Make sure your main character’s purpose is opposed in nearly every scene. What will it cost him if he doesn’t succeed? If your opposition is only a misunderstanding that could be cleared up at any point, it isn’t strong enough.
(Oh, I wish I had a dollar for every romance I’ve ever read when a “misunderstanding” was the only thing that kept apart the main characters! I really dislike “misunderstanding” in books.)
Books full of suspense hold onto a reader. Surprise also helps, but writing about that is for next time.
This post was a long time coming. I wrote about novel writing beginnings way back on May 4th! Ah, well, sometimes life intervenes. I’d like to share with you more writing wisdom from Phyllis Whitney. Today I’ll talk about middles.
Starting a story is fun and exciting. Everything is new and the idea is fresh. Then, about 100 to 200 pages into the book (depending on how long the story is), often the bloom fades. Long ago I used to teach a night school creative writing class to adults. I had several students who had 3-4 books started, about a 100 or so pages into the book and they just stopped. They put the book aside and started another one.
Middles are hard. The ending is far away and most of the pages have yet to be written. Many times enthusiasm wanes and self-questioning starts. Voices in your head start telling you: Maybe this book is no good and I should start something else. Maybe I shouldn’t even try to finish this. (Never listen to those ugly voices, and never, NEVER delete or throw away any writing while you are in this mood.)
One way to keep from having a pile of unfinished manuscripts is to do more planning before you start the book. But what if it’s too late for that? What if you have the middle-of-the-book blues? One solution is not to constantly re-read your story. With each day’s work, only re-read the previous day’s work to recapture the mood of the scene and regain impetus to move ahead with the next scene. If you are stuck on your story, go through all your character sketches again. Plan new chapters. Ask yourself some “what if” and “why” questions about your story. Jot down any new ideas for scenes that come to your mind. If your mind stubbornly refuses to come up with any new ideas, try my “jump-start” method.
Jump ahead and write that special, exciting scene that you are still 25 to 50 pages away from. That may be just what you need to get going again. Then you can think of what might lead up to that scene and write it
Remember that “No scene should remain static, without movement or action, however small it may sometimes be if people are sitting in a room conversing. There should be movement of plot, even if not of people, and a furthering of, or setback to, the character’s present problem.” You should have small climaxes through the middle, with your character solving or defeating a problem, and facing new problems along the way to the end of your novel and the big climax.
These are only a few ideas to get through your book middle. Do you have any special tricks to help you through the middle of your book?
Posted by Will
I think my writing is having a mid-life crisis.
The dam first broke four summers ago- truly chronicling the Lands of Hope- and my productivity was very high I can tell you. Sure, Stephen King and George R.R. Martin do better. But not by much. And they make MONEY.
Plus I had other ideas, about how to support the work. Compendium material (right here on this blog), maps, a chronology– checklist items I ticked off to build the ever-desired platform. Starting with roughly the same knowledge of e-publication and social networks as the average survivor of the Black Plague, I’ve come to a point where I know some stuff. More important, I know some folks. Time is limited, I don’t need to tell you that, but I make a few rounds, read great entries, drop comments. I curate the odd bit of trivia to FB or G+, I review fellow authors with pleasure. And about once a month I come here and put in what I honestly think is some of my best material, alongside the splendid writers of the Independent Bookworm.
My writing has slowed recently, for reasons I’m well aware of (basically, the Lavender Lady intimidates me no end). I’ll start to roll the rock again soon. But meantime, I’ve dallied. And I’ve lost energy. I look around at the aggressive marketing and candid self-promotion others do. My honest reaction? Hey, I already have one rat race, why write just to pick up another?
My enthusiasm for marketing myself has fallen through the floor. My inner sap is whining- ‘Why aren’t I already famous?’
So I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot. But I haven’t accomplished even more. The posts, the time-line, the tales themselves- there they are, but what does it add up to? It’s not just how many have paid to read my stories- I get it, I’m a drop in the ocean- but sometimes I feel like nothing I’ve written, even the free stuff, makes any noise at all. It’s falling over alone in a forest somewhere . We’re all busy: and I don’t write SHORT things. Strike three and I’m still on deck.
Then it hit me. I need the aliens.
Remember that assignment in seventh grade, where the teacher said “think of ONE thing you can put in a room that will survive the nuclear war- aliens will find it and you want to put something in there that will tell them all about the human race”. I loved that assignment. Extra points if you can guess what I suggested- this was the 70s, so nothing that starts with a small “i”. Electricity yes, but not portable. Guess.
So just now, I had my own assignment moment- wouldn’t the aliens love me? No, stick with this- it’s a gasser.
Suppose some kind of bizarre magnetic pulse hits the earth, blankets the planet with radiation that kills all the people and affects part of that beloved Internet which is our modern record. All the content, things that anyone has ever WRITTEN, that stuff stays- web pages, the composition, art, video clips, etc. But
EVERYTHING THAT MEASURES IT is gone- the page hits, the Likes, the buzz, bestseller lists and on and on- that’s poof. Google’s entire search engine with ranked findings is
ground zero- boom, atomized, no trace.
The internet is now level. Everything that’s written is there together. That’s what the aliens find.
So there’s Stephen King’s book, and GRRM’s, and mine, on Amazon- but no sales records. And their blogs, their pages, and mine, side by side in a cybernetic sense. Aliens would be just as likely to find me as either of them. Once they figure out our alphabet, I come first! And they’d like my stuff- there’s adventure in there, cool things that happen to great characters in amazing situations. And they’d be completely ignorant that I was ever just one of the faceless mass of indies who struggled to gain the slightest traction.
To the aliens, I’d be a bestseller.
As big as… as big as Robert Galbraith.
This is the kind of pathetic, cold comfort my imagination flees to when my spirits about writing are low. I’m blogging about it for two reasons. First and foremost I’m still scared of my MC, and can’t use my time the way every writer would want, not yet. But I also think this, the depths that an unknown author can feel, are worth recording for posterity. We keep doing this, despite feeling so empty, long months and years of shoveling sand on a beach and getting bupkis back.
Five Signs You’re Not a Success As an Independent Author
1) You set your preferences on Smashwords to notify you every time one of your books sells. You haven’t needed to turn it off yet.
2) You spend time thinking about how you can pump your Klout score higher than your age. Because of course that will make it better.
3) You wait as long as you can- maybe six weeks- before checking Amazon sales. You know there’s nothing. You’re still crushed. You check again every day for a week, to make sure there was no mistake.
4) The day after you leave two business cards at the local library you see an extra page-view on one of your books and you think “aha, it’s working”.
5) The “Reach” factor on your Facebook page slips into negative territory.
Let the pity-fest begin! Add to the list, append your personal gripes, share the misery (we all know it wants company). Or if you’re minded to spoil the party, a few tips on what gets you cranked up again, the encouragement you find even in the darkest hour. I might listen to that too.
But hurry- Optimist that I am, I think the aliens really are coming. So I will have to delete this page soon, else they start to suspect…
P.S.: Answer to the homework assignment-
Way back in 1982, a popular author, Phyllis A. Whitney, wrote a book for writers. The title was Guide to Fiction Writing and it was published by The Writer, Inc. (It’s out of print now, but you can pick up a used copy online easy enough.) At the time she wrote this book, she had over 60 novels published, some for adults and some for young adults. Her adult novels were romantic suspense and she sold many copies of them. Her book goes into detail about both her writing methods and technique. I’d like to share with you some bits of writing wisdom from Ms. Whitney over the next several months. Here’s the first installment on writing beginnings:
Probably the best way to start any story…is to show a character with a problem doing something interesting. The more quickly you can make what is happening clear, the more likely you’ll be to draw your reader into your story. The old questions that have always been set down in books on writing are still necessary to consider: Who? What? Where? When? Why? It’s seldom easy to answer all of them quickly and gracefully in those first pages. Long expositions, descriptions, philosophizing, may entertain you, but are unlikely to grip a busy reader today. The reader doesn’t have to know everything right away. Yet he mustn’t be left in a state of confusion either.
In your opening, you will need to establish the immediate problem that faces your main character. You will also make it clear why your character can’t solve this problem easily. Expect to do your beginning over several times. I usually write a first opening in which I explain everything and get it off my chest. Only then can I read it through and decide which parts of the mass of explanation are really needed right now.
Next month some tips on writing middles.
Remember when you were in school during language arts class? Or that writing class you took as an adult? Your teacher gave a writing prompt to the class and everyone wrote a story using the same prompt. (In younger grades, they were called story ideas.)
When the stories were read aloud, even though they started from the same prompt, every story was drastically different. If, for one moment, you might wonder why, only think about it. Every person has different experiences, different environments, different thoughts. Many of us have different values, dreams, and hopes. Our writing comes from our inter-most being. What we think and feel and what we believe comes through into our writing.
Writing prompts can sometimes be just the idea starter a person needs to jog the process of story telling. It can be a welcome challenge to take the idea and turn it into your own personal story.
So, thinking in this vein, I have an assignment for you, should you choose to accept it. Use the following prompt and write your own story. Change anything you like to make the story your own. (I’d love to hear from you and read what you come up with.)
It was time. He opened the door into the blackness outside and melted away into the shadows. Silently. Swiftly. Knowing he must not be noticed. Must not be found. Standing alone under the trees he waited, not moving a muscle. Waiting. Another shadow detached itself from the surrounding darkness. Moved. Came closer.