Thursday, May 30, 2013
Do you talk about your books before you're done writing them? Share tidbits and excerpts before the final draft is done? Ask questions about what readers want?
Stop. Every author needs secrecy. Otherwise, you end up writing for other people...and not for you.
Every writer has their own process, but there are some universal truths when it comes to writing a book. And one universal truth that really matters: stories change.
I thought about a book I wanted to write for years and years, from the time I was a child. Finally I decided to start bringing it to life. Originally, the story was going to be told from the daughter's point of view. I was going to kill her mother early and the whole story was going to be about this girl's struggle.
I started researching, and planning, and imagining. And pretty soon, I wasn't telling the daughter's story at all. I was telling her mother's, and she did not die. Everything about that book changed, from love interests to plot to the big ending I envisioned. And when I was done, only tiny pieces of my original plan remained.
Stories have a life of their own. If you interrupt a story's natural evolution by spilling too many details to too many readers too early, you are doing the story (and yourself) a great disservice.
The truth is, you don't know what you've got until the story is finished. You don't know where the process will take you. But you do know one thing: you need room to go in new directions. You need space to make changes and new discoveries.
You need your secrets. Because those first ideas are going to change, and stories are going to grow. Let them, and don't lock yourself into a plan too early.
I didn't talk about that book until the first draft was written. I just let it evolve and take me where it wanted to go. That book is my favorite thing I've ever written.
Hold tight to your secrets. As an author, it's the secrecy that gives you your greatest power. When you give secrets away, you're shutting out creativity. So just remember this one piece of advice: shhhh.
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Today I'm pleased to host Sarah-Jane Lehoux. She's stopping in on her Sevy Series Blog Tour to talk about the hard work that goes into writing.
When people learn that I’m an author, at some point in the ensuing conversation, they’ll say, “I could never write a whole book!” To which I say, “Of course you can. IF you actually tried.”
Anything You Can Do...
See, humans are born with an imagination. We are born with the ability to remember past events and ponder on the future. We have a brain that can learn and grow and reshape pathways and all sorts of other neat stuff. It’s pretty impressive, the human brain.
I could look at a doctor and think, “Oh, I could never do what she does!” But you know what, yeah, I probably could. Sure, some people inherently lean more towards certain professions than others, but that’s just the start. What comes next is years of hard work, trial and error, and *GASP* learning.
I very much believe that anyone can become a writer, if they put in the work. Because that’s what writing is. Work. Damned hard work. It’s not as though I just sit down and BAM!!! Instant book. It takes practice. It takes a lot of frustration and a lot of days where I want to repeatedly bang my head against my desk, a la Sesame Street’s Don Piano.
You’ve got to crawl before you can walk. And you’ve got to write pages and pages of crap before the words start forming a more pleasing structure.
At the end of the day, it’s all about desire. How badly do you want this?
I decided long ago that being a writer was what I wanted, and I continue to push forward, through setbacks and successes alike, because I’m not giving up on what I want just because it’s a difficult road. After all, a dream is just a goal without a plan.
So dream big and plan wisely. And that’s how you write a book.
About the Author
Sarah-Jane Lehoux has always had a passion for storytelling. From grade school tales of cannibalistic ghosts, to teenaged conversations with God, to her rebellion against adulthood with fantasy kingdoms and fairy magic, she has attempted to share her love of the quirky and unconventional with her readers.
She currently resides in Southern Ontario with her husband and her horde of Machiavellian cats. In addition to her own writing, Sarah-Jane works as an editor and freelance cover artist.
Books by Sarah-Jane
Happily Ever After Doesn't Come Without a Price
In the crumbling city of Eloria, there are two indisputable facts. First, everyone has a dream. Secret, seemingly unattainable, altogether irresistible, it is the kind of dream that aches and, at times, burns. For most, it will forever remain a teasing enigma, but there are those for whom dreams grow into obsession. Which brings us to the second indisputable fact: everyone has a price. Protestations of morality have little meaning when confronted with the all-consuming passion of the soul. Better judgment is pushed aside for the chance to obtain the unobtainable. The only question remaining is just how much a person is willing to sacrifice in order to get what they want.
Sevy has always been a quick study in the wicked ways of Eloria. Since childhood, she has eked out a living for herself with the help of her sticky fingers and her indomitable spirit. She has no qualms about taking what she desires, and when the unrequited love of her life is mysteriously murdered, Sevy will stop at nothing to get him back. Elvish black magic, necromancy and demonic pacts are of little consequence if it means she can once again have her beloved at her side. But is she willing to murder her only friend to get the job done? Is there a line that even this selfish, self-proclaimed bitch is not prepared to cross?
There is More Than One Road to Redemption
Sometimes the past can't be forgotten. Sometimes the truth refuses to be buried. And sometimes the dead won't stay dead.
It began as a simple request: Journey to the Northern Jungles and bring a wayward son back to the safety of his farm and family before the racial tension that is building between humans and dark elves erupts into civil war. But life is never simple for Sevy, and she soon finds herself entangled in a bloody battle of good versus evil, love versus hate.
Old friends and enemies reunite, familial bonds are broken, and loyalty is tested. And in the midst of the steamy, sultry jungles, the ghosts of a serial killer's victims come out to play. Sevy, as petulant and irascible as ever, must overcome her personal demons in order to expose a madman and bring peace back to the kingdom. But just how much of her sanity must she sacrifice to help her friends? And how can she save anyone when she can't even save her own soul?
Never Trust a Liar, especially when they're telling the truth.
Starting over isn’t easy, especially when the world isn’t ready for you to change. Sevy, thief turned assassin turned mercenary, isn’t having any fun adjusting to a normal, law-abiding life. Luckily for her, an old partner in crime arrives with an irresistible proposition: a getaway to a tropical island, an adventure of a lifetime, and an amazing friendship ready to blossom into an even more amazing romance.
Things are looking up for Sevy. That is, until a pack of maniacal fairies with a taste for human flesh arrive on the scene.
Now she must unravel a web of magical intrigue hidden behind the outwardly idyllic atmosphere of the islands of Belakarta. Nothing is as it seems, and no one can be trusted. Trapped under the spell of a handsome and mysterious stranger, Sevy must fight fairies and tricksters to regain her freedom.
Or spend an eternity as a sorcerer’s plaything.
Tuesday, May 28, 2013
Ever read a book that made you feel happy? Hopeful? Scared? Some authors know how to play with your emotions, and it's a skill that can be learned. Find out how to set a mood with your writing, and start jerking on those heartstrings.
You can say that hamburger looks tasty, or you can say it looks mouth-watering. Which description made you feel the hungriest? Certain words and phrases evoke certain emotions, and it's the author's job to figure out which ones to use to create the right emotion in the reader.
Was Jessica upset or was she in despair? The mood created by each word is very different, though either might be appropriate to describe the mood of the character. When you're writing, it's important to pay attention to the way certain words and phrases make you feel -- because if you feel it, the reader will probably feel that also. Do you want them laughing or crying? Groaning or gasping? Feeling hopeful...or hopeless? The words you choose do all of that, so you have to choose well.
Setting the Pace
The words you choose are of course the most important element in any book, but there are other ways to set a certain mood. Do you want the reader to feel the boredom of a long day, the tedium of a strenuous task? Write longer, thicker paragraphs with more details to slow down the pace of the book and create a mood of inactivity. Want to make the reader feel a little more rushed, frantic? Write shorter, choppier sentences in quick, small paragraphs. Make details come hard and fast when you're creating a chaotic mood, describe them slowly when you're creating a moment you want the reader to live in for a while.
Setting a mood is all about pacing, proper word choice and of course, the action that's taking place. Focus on mood when you're writing your scenes, and your writing will come across a lot more strongly. Readers will feel it more, and they'll connect with it more easily as a result.
Monday, May 27, 2013
In real life, people commonly shout when speaking with great passion. Sometimes in real dialogue, people stress certain words or phrases without raising their voices. This is how we emphasize when speaking. Now, you need to master the art of emphasizing words when you're writing. There is a standard that authors use. Learn it to be one of them.
What We're Yelling About
There are a lot of different ways to use writing to show emphasis on a particular word or phrase. Sometimes, a simple exclamation point is enough.
"Wow! I didn't know Johnny had a power boat!"
Clearly, the person speaking is doing so with a great deal of enthusiasm. One can infer that they're speaking rather loudly and with some emphasis, because of the exclamation points at the end of each thought. There are other ways to show passion in dialogue.
"She said what about my hair?"
The emphasis on the word what shows that the speaker has put emphasis on this word, saying it more strongly than others. This clearly displays emotion -- perhaps dismay, anger or surprise. Without the emphasis, the question becomes curious instead of passionate:
"She said what about my hair?"
And then there are times when people shout -- loudly. To show this, many writers use all caps to put emphasis on the words.
"I told you to GET OUT OF HERE."
The speaker begins to shout when they repeat their instruction. Using all caps is a very effective way to convey a shout, and this is commonly what's used to express shouting, but you don't want to over-do it. All capital letters is very distracting; it pulls the eye and that takes away from all the rest of your words. Use this only in moderation. Stick to italics and exclamation points to show emphasis in situations when an extremely loud shout is not needed nor appropriate.
When it comes to using bold to put emphasis words, just don't do it. This is not the standard in writing. Bold text is used only for headlines and subject lines. In everyday dialogue, bold text just has no place whatsoever.
Sunday, May 26, 2013
Thursday, May 23, 2013
Writing a story within a story is one of the most common literary techniques, and used so often you may fail to notice every time it's happening. Character dreams and remembrances can be a story within a story, though in the most traditional sense when this device is used you'll be following two different plots. Either way, it's a risky writing move. When it's done well, it can be great. When it's done poorly, readers end up hating both stories.
A Tale of Two Stories
If you read novels regularly, the story-within-a-story scenario is pretty much unavoidable. It's going to crop up in the form of diary entries, newspaper articles, perhaps a book the character is reading. To name just a few of the authors who have used this technique, I present Chaucer, J.R.R. Tolkien , Edgar Allen Poe, J.K. Rowling and Herman Melville.
At times, the story-within-a-story technique is done remarkably well. Fried Green Tomatoes has two separate plots that unfold together, though one takes place many years before the other. Each story is interesting and engaging, and each has characters that are worth reading about.
But I've also seen it done very badly indeed, and I'm not going to name any specific examples. I have noticed certain elements at play where the story-within-a-story is concerned, however, and many of the same elements are always in play when I absolutely hate it.
- Suddenly, from nowhere: If the reader gets past the middle of the book and suddenly a very long story-within-a-story appears, this is annoying. It unexpectedly interrupts the flow of the main story, and this is where the focus ought to be as the reader nears the conclusion of the story. If you must insert an extra story here, keep it brief.
- Weirdly unrelated: If the story-within-a-story has pretty much nothing whatsoever to do with the main plot, I'm going to be spending the entire time wondering why the heck I'm wasting my time. Chances are good that I'll simply put down the book.
- Brand-new style: It becomes off-putting if the story-within-the-story is told in a very different voice with language that reads differently than the rest of the book. The story may be told by another narrator and I get that, but it still takes away from the overall cohesiveness of the book. Remember that every novel should read as a whole, and that includes all the stories within the story.
If you're telling a story within a story, make sure that story has an important purpose. Otherwise, you're wasting the reader's time...and they'll end up hating all your stories.
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
If every story has a hero, logic follows that it must also have a villain. In writing, we call this character the antagonist. But because we are writers, we are able to make our villains as unique as we like. Your antagonist doesn't have to be evil or frightening. Hell, write it a certain way and it doesn't even need to be human.
Evil and Good
Your main character is your protagonist, and in any good story there will be plenty of conflict to keep your hero from their ultimate goal. Perhaps they want to gain someone's love, overcome some problem, solve a mystery -- whatever it is they want to do. Something is going to stand in the way of this goal. That something is the antagonist, or the villain of your story.
In some cases, the villain will manifest itself as another character in the story. Perhaps it's a rival love interest, or a detective who is also working on the case your character wants to solve, or even the criminal themselves. Some stories have more than one villain whom the hero must vanquish before achieving their goal (or failing).
When the villain is another character, the writing isn't as cut and dry as it seems. Some writers like to make villains sympathetic by giving them some admirable qualities or likable traits. This sets up a conflict in the reader that creates more tension. In other stories, the villain may be purely evil and unlikable (Voldemort is one example). When this villain is also seemingly unbeatable, this can also create a lot of tension and drama. Tension is the key to creating conflict, and another character is a great way to introduce it into the story.
But, you don't have to use another character as your villain. There are many creative ways to introduce anatogism into the story without creating villainous characters. The weather may conspire against your character, or an automobile. A car that breaks down at a critical moment can be an evil thing in any story. Sheer bad luck may be what plagues your character, or perhaps a physical limitation is their main antagonist. In some stories the villain is an animal, like a fearsome dog or a crafty cat. An entity or non-human creature also makes a handy villain. A terrible memory or some hang-up that your character has can also become a villain, setting up an inner conflict.
There are many different ways to introduce "evil" into your story. When it comes to the antagonist of your stories, think outside the box. Devote as much time to the antagonist as you do to the protagonist, and you'll create lots of rich drama.
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
I was asked and interview question that brought this character to mind, but I've thought about her a lot. The interviewer asked me how I avoid writing a Mary Sue character. I told her I'm not sure that I do, because that's the truth. Sometimes she sneaks in...whether we realize it or not.
Mary Sue a literary term named after an actual character that appeared in some 70s-era Star Trek fan fiction. I'm a huge fan of all pre-JJ Abrams Trek, so I have no problem with sweet little Mary Sue. In the original story, she was a very young and yet amazingly adept officer who had adventures in which she invariably saved the day. Now, a certain type of character is known as a Mary Sue, and she's not always female. Many have likened another Star Trek character, Wesley Crusher, to a Mary Sue.
Generally speaking, a Mary Sue character is there in place of the author. She's quite normal or very young, yet somehow has amassed an amazing amount of skills that allow her to come up with solutions to problems in the nick of time. She is well-liked by others, particularly her superiors, and becomes integral to the plot. She rarely, if ever, does anything wrong and she usually doesn't fail.
It's a broad definition, and that's because the term is very broadly applied. Mary Sue has many variations, including Marty Stu and Einstein Sue. The term is so widely used, in fact, that many authors are terrified of adding a Mary Sue to their stories. Critics will verbally lambast writers whom they believe have created this type of character.
But I think Mary Sue is actually in every story, and I'm going to tell you why. At its broadest, the term applies to a character the represents the author. I propose that all main characters represent their authors, at least in part. How else could the author create the three-dimensional main character that feels real to the audience?
So don't be afraid of creating a Mary Sue. Embrace it instead. Don't ever write for critics, or for fear of them. Write for yourself...and then Mary's going to end up sneaking in anyway, so go ahead and welcome her.
Monday, May 20, 2013
Foreshadowing, hint-dropping, a little tease here and there -- these are time-honored literary techniques that keep the reader hooked and wanting more. But you can get to a point where you've just pushed the reader too far. If you tease, and tease, and tease, even when you deliver you won't get the reaction you wanted.
Looking Into the Future
Foreshadowing is a fancy literary term for hint-dropping. When you allude to the reader that something is about to happen, or if you say so outright (which is generally what I do in my writing), you're foreshadowing. You are, essentially, dropping teasers about upcoming chapters of the book. And like any good literary technique, it can be over-done.
In other words, you can't drop too many hints. I read a book, once, with a main character had a very extensive backstory. Now, this is not unusual. The fact that the author teased this backstory, without revealing it, and for a good 80 percent of the book, was unusual. And frankly, I no longer cared about the backstory when it was revealed in very anticlimactic fashion.
Ever pulled on a dryer sheet? It's resilient up to a point. You can pull it, and stretch it, but only so far. Keep pulling, and it will rip in two. The patience of your readers is a dryer sheet. You can pull and stretch, but only a little. Take it too far, and their patience is going to snap. They're going to stop caring, and that's not where you want your readers to be.
Tease once, and you're building anticipation. Tease twice, and you're drawing out the suspense. Keep doing it, and you're playing with fire. Like all literary techniques, foreshadowing should be used in moderation. When writing, please remember to tease responsibly.
Thursday, May 16, 2013
When insurance companies use it, they've got a great excuse. When writers use it, they're called lazy. But the deus ex machina, known in some circles as acts of God, can be a viable plot twist...especially when all other possibilities have been exhausted. Snub this literary technique if you will, but it's been used by some of the greats -- everybody from H.G. Wells to J.K. Rowling.
Here Comes the Calvary
We've all reached that point in a story, whether it's one we're reading or one we're telling, when it seems that all hope is lost. When the situation seems so dire, it's impossible to see any light at the end of the tunnel. When that happens, the writer has a few different options for untangling the mess.
The most controversial is arguably the deus ex machina. Loosely translating the Latin, this actually means "act of God." Through this technique, a heretofore unexpected event is suddenly thrust into the story from out of nowhere to solve or resolve a situation which was completely unresolvable only moments before. Picture this to get the general idea: A tense 60-minute chase has led us here, the Two Tails saloon. Hammerface McGee and his band of local rowdies is on one side of the bar, Sherriff Bullitt O'Neal is on the other with his trusty deputies and of course, Ramblin' Nell. It's a standoff, with everyone's gun pointed at everyone else. Nothing is moving in the room except the sweat on Hammerface's forehead. And somewhere, a clock is ticking away the tense seconds. There's only one way out of this: start shooting. And this is just what Bullitt is about to do...when suddenly, the bottles behind the bar begin to tremble. A glass totters along the top of the bar and falls to the ground. The entire room is shaking. Earthquake! Everyone dives for cover, and the standoff scatters.
This is an act of God, and many critics complain that it's a lazy writing technique. They argue that such interventions are unlikely. The officer who shows up to rescue the children in Lord of the Flies, the eagle that appears at the end of Lord of the Rings, the resolution of Jacob's feelings for Bella in the final Twilight book -- all are deus ex machina. Critics can call it lazy if they like, but this is one of the oldest plot devices known to writing. It originated with the Greek writers, who needed big moments with which to end their plays. The sudden and unexpected intervention was as good a choice as any, and still is. When used the right way, this plot device (like any other) can be quite satisfactory and believable (I can't fault it in Lord of the Flies). At other times, it's a bit silly (Stephen King wrote that the Hand of God detonated a nuclear warhead in The Stand, and this is not a joke).
But when something comes out of nowhere, it's bound to draw a certain amount of criticism. The beauty of writing a book is that you can always go back and change something. If you've written yourself into a tense situation, come up with a believable way out and link it to something that previously happened. If someone is going to suddenly appear and save the day, write a scene in which that character specifically references the place where he or she will later appear. Bury it if you like, make it hard to find and impossible to remember, but add it in.
Because there's nothing wrong with an old-fashioned dues ex machina every once in a while, but don't rely on it. Always be willing to explore many literary techniques and write in different ways. As you get better and better at creative writing, you won't need to rely on acts of God.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Some of the most dramatic moments in stories are abruptly halted, cut off in the middle. When the rest of the scene is finally revealed later in the story, it's pretty heady stuff. Cutting away can be a great writing technique to make any story more thrilling. But it can also be done too much, and poorly, in ways that will simply wreck your story.
"There is no more need for questions, Inspector." The interruption halted the room, and all eyes turned to him. "I believe I know who killed Mr. Monroe."
Two weeks before that fateful night, Phillip was in Tangier...
Cutting away from a scene at a pivotal moment has a number of different effects on a reader. It heightens the tension and draws out the suspense of the story, certainly, but it's also frustrating. When a reader is caught up in a scene and they feel themselves edging close to a conclusion that isn't delivered, it can be incredibly annoying.
The secret of great writing is annoying your readers just enough to keep them reading. Cross the line and you'll alienate them. Readers give up on writers quickly, and for lots of reasons. If you fail to deliver, they have every right to put your book aside. The trick is to continue to make the reader bend, and bend, without breaking them.
The crux of it is that you have to finish the scene, and don't wait too long about doing it. If you cut away from an important scene and then come back to it later, you have to make it satisfying. Be sure the scene delivers vital information to reward the reader for their patience. Do it well, and they'll reward you by continuing to read your work.
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Not all characters enter into the story fresh and pure. Dickens had a habit of starting his books with the birth of the protagonist, but not every author goes all the way to the very beginning to introduce a character. Sometimes, they've got a past. And if you want me to know about that past, you're going to need a tried-and-true literary device: the backstory.
The Story So Far...
The story-within-a-story is a well-used writing technique. When that story is a backstory, however, you've got to be careful. Many authors create a backstory for certain characters. I do it all the time to help make them seem more real; a character with a past is much richer. But when the audience needs to know that backstory, you've got some stuff to think about. Presenting a backstory is pretty tricky business.
- Prologue: Some authors like to show the backstory right up front at the start of the book, in the prologue. This is a very efficient means of presenting the past part of the story before the real action of the plot begins, but it's been done to death. Other authors try to mix it up a little by presenting the backstory in other ways within the meat of the novel.
- Flashbacks: Looking for an easy way to time travel back in the past? Flashbacks are well-used technique for doing this. Anything's acceptable inside some italics. With a flashback, you can easily insert backstory in the form of entire scenes right into the middle of the narrative.
- Dialogue: Need to reveal some past events? Pull out a character who wasn't involved in that past and put them in a room with someone who was. Make the character start asking questions, and draw the backstory out through dialogue. This is a great way to make the reader feel like a part of the story; the character who doesn't know what's going on is easy to identify with and relate to, because I don't know this mysterious past either.
The way you present the backstory is important, but the timing is essential. The reader needs to have this information, but when? Keep a few tips in mind while you're writing it. Don't offer too many hints or draw the suspense out for too long. If you keep a reader on the string for an extended period of time and stretch their patience, eventually they will break. They'll get to a point where they no longer care about the backstory. Tease it just enough, make them wait just long enough, and reveal all.
A good backstory makes characters even more interesting, and adds another layer to the story you're telling. Use it the right way, and that story will be a lot better. Use it the wrong way, and it's only going to take the reader away from the story you want to tell.