Use Your Words

Happy November, gentle viewers! Here we go. NaNoWriMo is revving its engines and ready to go, I’m ready to make this an awesome month. Here’s who has joined us on the Rebel front:

Nila E. White
Kristin whose last name I just spaced (or don’t know)
Alexandra Roman de Hernandez
Lyra Mulhern
If I left you out and you want to join us, please feel free! The original post about the challenge is here.

And now to kick off NaNoWriMo, here are some high and lofty thoughts on writing. 🙂

18. Communication
Good writing connects with readers. For each piece you write, ask yourself:

  1. Who is my audience? Imagine the people you’d most like to reach.
  2. What do I want the experience and result of this piece to be? What do I want readers to know or believe? How do I want them to feel? What do I want them to do when they’re finished reading?
  3. How will I measure my ability to deliver on these goals? Workshop it in a writing group? Post it on my blog? Submit it to a publication?

Pay attention to feedback. You’ll start to see the types of people and publications that are attracted to what you write, how you’re meeting their needs (or not), and opportunities for becoming more effective.

Communication is one of those vital little abstract nouns that forms the foundation for so much of our world, from relationships to business to creativity. Effective communication transplants the thoughts or feelings of one person into the brain of another without using a massive hypodermic. Miscommunication (or poor communication) causes no shortage of angst, arguments, hurt feelings, and even war.

The written word is a powerful form of communication. As writers, it’s our job to make sure that we utilize all the tools in our toolbox to get our ideas across in an effective and succinct manner. We can paint pictures or tell stories with words. We can evoke strong emotions (more on that in a couple days!). We can also bore someone to the point that they throw our book across the room and ensure we never get to quit the day job.

This particular bit of The 25 applies pretty well to the little point on the map that describes my location in the writing process right now. Your answers might well be different than mine to these questions, but they’re important ones to ask.

1. Who is your audience? The people I write for love magic. Maybe they’re like me and begged Santa for a magic wand as a child and never gave up looking for it. They spend their lives hoping to turn a corner and find something shimmering and mystical. They love the supernatural and know that while they evolve, vampires don’t go out of style. They don’t mind getting messy because they know life gets messy. You’ll shed a little blood (maybe a lot of blood), cry some tears, fall in and out of love, and look with wonder as new days continue to dawn no matter what happened with the last sunset.

2. What do I want readers to experience, feel, and believe? What do I want them to do when they’re done? I want to give readers the magic they’ve been looking for. I want them to be able to live the lives of my characters right alongside them, to feel what they feel whether wonder or sorrow, and laugh and cry with them. I want them to believe that the world changes every day and that we must always adapt to it and humble ourselves knowing that we can never really say what comes next. I want them to feel like those collected bits of magic sprinkled through the story become their own personal treasure trove. When they’re done, I want them to crave the next book and tell their friends what it meant to them.

3. How will I measure my ability to meet these goals? For me, it’s always been about books. It’s been about the power of print and the feeling I get when I pick up a book I love so well I make it real, like the Velveteen Rabbit. If I do my job well enough, I’ll find a way to make my living creating new stories and new pages for people. My measure of success will always be the response of readers — if they love my characters and live my stories, then I will have succeeded. And that will be reflected in where my books land on the shelves. It’s all about connection, you see. Forging a connection through communication.

The sign of the best writers is that they write beautiful words — and they make those words disappear. When you read the work of the great writers, you forget you’re reading. You find yourself coming back to your world maybe hours later at four in the morning because you were unable to pull yourself out of their world. The words blur into pictures and experiences that tug at you until you succumb. You don’t find yourself wondering how someone’s car got totaled and she had no time to rent a new one, but somehow drives to a meeting the next day. You don’t flail your arms at comma splices or misspelled words. You get lost. And when you finally come up for air, all you can do is marvel, hungry for the next experience.

That’s the goal of all communication. Learn the rules, learn the ropes, line up your tools, and make the nuts and bolts disappear into experience. And that, gentle viewers, is how you use your words.

Into the Breach

Into the Breach

Good afternoon, gentle viewers, and a Happy Halloween to you! Or a joyous Samhain, if that’s how you roll. Or you know, Dia de los Muertos is tomorrow, I reckon. Holiday season is in full swing! And I have the tea to prove it. Nom nom nom.

Twelve short hours before NaNo begins. I looked around for a midnight write-in, but the closest one to me was downtown D.C. (snore), and I’m not driving over an hour to hang out in a Starbucks at midnight. It does look like there are some serious NaNo events throughout the month in Maryland, though, so I should be able to find something. In fact, I am going to a write-in on Thursday because it’s close and my day off. Woohoo!

Apart from my NaNoRebels challenge goals (1,500 words a day, an hour or more a week refueling), I’ve set a few goals for myself for the month. Here they are!

1. Finish the first draft of book two (almost there!). This is so that when I pitch to agents in January, I will not only have one bright and shiny work to show them, but two! That’s right, people. For the low price of ink on paper, you get two — count ’em — two finished works! If this woman can write two, she can probably write more.

Salesman Jesus wants you to publish my books.

2. Get a start on book three for the same reasons as Goal #1, if you change “two” to “three.”

3. Behind Goal #3, we have one last little thing to say on my goals! While in general the idea for NaNoWriMo is quantity  and not so much quality, my personal goal is to write lucid and cohesive work this month. I don’t want to have to spend another month making it readable when I go back and edit.

Anyhoo. I wrote almost 3,000 words yesterday, finally pushing book two forward in plot and action. That’s a huzzah moment. I also went back and read it and liked what I had, even though I wrote it with my pink earbuds glued to my ears rocking Daft Punk at 3 a.m.

Right now I’m at about 87,000 words, which should be right on track for the end to be at around 120,000 for the first draft. It’s long, but I wanted hefty books. They’re supposed to be chronicles, for FSM’s sake, so it makes sense that they wouldn’t be 250-pagers.

The fun thing about this trilogy is writing different characters who are also different species. The first protagonist was a seer and a shapeshifter (she’s still around), and the second is a witch who was forcibly turned into a vampire against her will. That gives me some fun things to work with and to explore the magic of the world a lot more in the second book rather than having to look at it solely from an observer’s point of view. Anna gets to be actively involved in the magic aspects of things.

My chunk from last night also introduced a new character who will be awesome. He is going to be tricky to write for a lot of different reasons (not the least of which that he is completely batshit insane), but he’s got a lot to offer the story and the other characters. Plus, I got to hear him say, “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty” to Sarah. Ha. She deserved that.

It’s Halloween time, gentle viewers! Get your spook on!

Magic in a Jar and Other Creative Tales

Magic in a Jar and Other Creative Tales

I know, I know. Double post action today. However, first of all, I need to celebrate getting draft two of book one finished. Yep. Done-zo. Even untangled the snarl at the end of the yarn ball into a perfectly awesome ending and a snazzy epilogue. It’s lookin’ like a book, folks. Onward to book two!

So as I plunge back into the first draft of book two (it’s about 85% done) and try to digest the Big Mac that seemed like a great idea for a celebratory dinner (I didn’t say I was thinking clearly), I thought I’d jet back to The 25 for a little post on creativity. Plus, I stumbled across another blog earlier that inspired some of the other stuff I want to write about before it disappears back into the ether.

Here’s what they have to say:

15. Creativity
Creativity is the secret sauce of the writing life. Its ingredients are different for everyone, and may change over time, which can make it difficult to keep the cupboards stocked. When you get stuck, take 30 minutes and try one of these:

  • Switch genres. Write a poem before diving into a narrative piece.
  • Review incomplete writing for a scrap of idea or language; let it lead you in.
  • Burn kindling. Keep a file of art, poems, quotes, pressed flowers—whatever ignites your imagination. Sift through it when you need a spark.
  • Grow your own list of triggers. Repeat what works until it doesn’t; then try something new.

Creativity isn’t always a formula. There isn’t always a zing poof of inspiration (that sounds suspiciously like dusting a vampire on Buffy) that leads to the ultimate creative endeavor. As Sarah Toole Miller mentioned on her blog today, sometimes when you write you discover that you “stumbled upon a tiny bit of magic.”

That sums up what I feel about creativity. I feel like my life finds me wandering about the day to day collecting bits of magic in a jar.

Perhaps this jar.

When the time comes to put ass in chair and write, I get out my little jar and see what’s floating around in there. Sometimes one bit of magic shines brighter than others. Sometimes one or two have already died in captivity. Regardless of how shiny they stay or how quickly the shine fades, I keep filling that jar. Whether it’s scribbled on the back of a pay stub that never made it out of my work check presenter or a receipt or a napkin or occasionally my skin, the jar gets filled whenever I spot a bit of magic.

Gotta write book two now. Get your write on, gentle viewers.

Writing the Big Bad

There’s always gotta be the bad guy. Whether they’re downright evil or just your run of the mill schoolyard bully, creating a believable antagonist is as essential to a good story as say…the stuf to an Oreo. They’re a source of motivation, angst, plot propellers, and wicked fun. If you can build antagonists that are fully three dimensional, it creates an intensity to the story, a tension that drives your protagonists and curiosity in the readers. They’ll want to make sure the bad guys get theirs, or at the very least see what they do next. Who is the bad guy? What are his or her motivations? Why does he persist in pestering your hero? Why should we care?

Because we should care about the antagonist. It should matter to us what happens to him or her, because ambivalent fuzzy feelings about the driving force against your protagonist will make a reader toss your book aside in search of more interesting foes. Think of Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter world. [SPOILER AHEAD!] She is a phenomenal antagonist. You can see her motivation to please Voldemort, her sheer malice toward Harry. You hate her for what she did to Neville’s parents. And I’m probably not alone when I say that when Mrs. Weasley screamed, “NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!” I let out an unstoppable roar of delight and pure glee, coupled with some rage. [END SPOILER]

J.K. Rowling created many memorable antagonists. I will probably hate Dolores Umbridge until my dying day. It’s why even now, I got chills and — let’s face it — a few welling tears when I wrote the above. They’re important. I write urban fantasy, so the ones that come to mind the most for me are out of that genre. Torak, the evil god in David Eddings’s Belgariad, the Forsaken in the Wheel of Time. One of my favorite antagonists of all time is Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He’s a true gray area baddie. One you love, you hate, and you pity all at once. His transformation as a character is one of the crowning jewels of television in my humble opinion. (Joss Whedon, Marti Noxon, David Fury, Jane Espenson, and the rest of the Buffy writers — I love you. Just sayin’.)

So while I’m not setting out to emulate a particular character in someone else’s work (that would be rude), I am seeking to achieve the same force of attraction to my bad guys. I want readers to hate them with fiery passion most of the time. Pity them on occasion. Ultimately, the Biggest Big Bad in my stories isn’t the most important. He’s behind the scenes, much like Sauron in Lord of the Rings. While he’s the driving force, it’s the ones on the front lines that inspire the most pathos in my readers.

The central villain in my trilogy for the first two books is Damon (name subject to change…damn you, Vampire Diaries), a 300-year-old vampire. He’s capricious, power hungry, and he has spent three centuries biding his time in the shadow of his “boss,” Bern. Bern is more brute than brain, a sadistic psychopath who hurts others just because he can. Damon, on the other hand, takes satisfaction from orchestrating scenarios and taking credit for his “messes.”

Damon’s character is in some ways similar to that of Anakin Skywalker. He lost everything he cared about  at an early age, and he believes those things were stolen from him. He sees the world as owing him, and he takes pleasure in power because he thinks that it will make him invincible. He thinks becoming harder makes him less likely to break, but in reality, it makes him brittle and unpredictable.

Bern’s character is more easy to pinpoint, as historically he prefers a full frontal assault. He comes at you, and you know it’s him. Damon, on the other hand, likes to tease. He likes to line up his opponents and pull their strings. He’s most dangerous when he’s been beaten, because humiliation causes that brittleness to snap into unpredictability. Once his plans are in place and executed, he glories in letting his victims know who was responsible. He believes he gets the full effect that way.

A third bad vamp in the lineup is Chase. Her unpredictability comes from the fact that she is psychotic. And insane. She will tear someone apart just to see how they react, and she flies into a rage if they die too quickly for her tastes. She works with  the others because someone scarier than her tells her to, but her loyalties are about as deep as a sidewalk mud puddle.

Crawling into the minds of the bad guys is never fun. To write the more disturbing scenes, I have to access the darkest parts of the human psyche. I feel like a detective trying to suss out a profile on a serial killer. Unfortunately, I don’t have to look much further than human history to see what people do when they think there are no repercussions. A big part of my current revision is making sure that I understand the motivations and backstory of these characters. I don’t feel like discussing that here yet, because of the spoiler effect, but if I don’t understand it and fully know  it, no reader will be able to figure it out. One scene in particular was very difficult for me to write. It’s in the second book, Elemental, and when I discovered where it was going and what was about to happen to my protagonist, I almost started crying. I did start crying when I wrote it and reread it. Oddly, it’s one of the most effective scenes I’ve written. I think.

I had to go back and rewrite the entire first fifty pages of Primeval, which I think I’ve mentioned before. I knew a certain plot event was less meaningful than it could be, and that I’d written it that way in part to spare myself from having to torture one of my characters. Now that it’s rewritten, I think that character is sufficiently brutalized. It’s a big part of her development, and I realized that readers wouldn’t be as affected as she is if they didn’t go through it with her. Sorry in advance for that. It was going to happen anyway, but now it cuts deeper. Suffice it to say that it’s not gratuitous, that it advances the character development of many players and serves to invest readers more in my protagonist — and my antagonists.

Any book written without the protagonist experiencing conflict, pain, or struggle is poor, lazy writing. Good conflict has gray areas — it’s never black and white. While there may be sides, readers should feel a spectrum of emotion in regards to any type of character just as they would with a person they meet in life. That’s what I’m working on.

100 pages left to go in draft two. Wish me monsters.

An Ode to Revision

I spent a long time dreading the task of revising my novel.  I think every writer has at some point dreamed of creating a flawless first draft that will liberate her from criticism and have a Pulitzer waiting as she types the final keystrokes (or scrawls the final words with aplomb).

No one really likes criticism. It never feels good for someone to point out flaws, even if they’re being constructive about it. In all the writing groups I’ve been to thus far, there has been this structure of “point out something you like so you can say what you don’t like.” I don’t think I’m alone when I say that after a while of living in that structure, the compliments all start to ring a wee bit hollow. The old ego can really take a bashing when people start digging through your words, picking some out, and tackling others with sledgehammers.

All that said, I’m fixing to add a big however.


(There it is.)

Criticism is how we grow. Even if it’s put rather unkindly, the meat of what’s there could make you a better writer. I have a huge issue using the word “stare.” Why, I don’t know. So-and-so stared at other-character. A stared at B. Asswipe and Poo stared at each other. I also struggle with passive voice and that wormy little creature, the adverb. Sometimes I’m oblivious to my quirks as a storyteller, and I need someone to just say, “Dude. Knock it off with the staring contests already.” Or, “FIND A MORE DYNAMIC VERB!”

If you want to be published, you need all sorts of readers. You need the Parental Figure. They’re the one who loves whatever you wrote simply because you wrote it, and you’re the obvious choice for Best Writer Ever because you are you. They’re the ones in your corner, picking you up when someone bloodies your nose or knocks you out, telling you to get your ass back out there and write. You also need the Eagle Eye, who will go through your work with a fine-toothed comb and circle all your comma splices and thoughtless typos with a fat red pen. You need the Arrogant Richard. That’s the guy or gal who knows better than any Nobel Prize winner what makes good writing. The one who will tell you what sucks and why. Who won’t pull a single punch because they are so damned sure they know better than you do. And you need the First Fanbase — they might be the most important of all, because they read it, get to know it, tell you what works and what doesn’t, and ultimately will tell their friends to buy it off the shelves.

You also need yourself. Stephen King likes to put his manuscripts away for weeks or months after he finishes them, then goes back to read them with fresh eyes. It works. It’s shocking how it can make you exclaim, “Oh my god! I wrote that!” or “Oh. My. God. I…wrote……………that?”

The point of all of this is that revision is a great way to find out what your skill set needs as a writer, whether that’s a crash course in plot or pacing or a return to constructive dialogue and exposition. Let’s face it: that perfect first draft is the writer’s version of finding a winning lottery ticket in a gutter. Part of what makes writers great is the ability to push themselves to make their work better all the time.

So get your vomit drafts. Read them. Revise them, and love what you’re doing.

(Sidenote: I am now 180 pages into the first rewrite of Primeval. And loving it all over again.)


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