What Wouldn’t Happen?

You have an outline of some sort. Whatever works for you. And you’re following it as faithfully as your characters will let you. You know where you came from and where you’re going.

But no journey is without side trips, problems, unexpected stops and whatever else must be dealt with because things happen. The oops moment. Or the eureka moment that’s so wonderful you can’t leave it out and can’t imagine why you didn’t include it in your story to begin with.

Problem is, when you’ve dealt with whatever needed dealing with and you’re ready to get back to your story as it was plotted, you find you’re lost. Completely, totally lost. You still know where you want to go but you’re no longer are sure how to get there because whatever happened that was so wonderful, changed your original itinerary. What to do?

Novels don’t have maps or Garmins but there is a neat trick to use in such situations. Stop writing and think of what wouldn’t happen next to your characters. What absolutely would not happen.

You might not use any of the ideas that pop into your head but you’ll get the creative side of your brain working once again and the exercise itself will uncover enough new story lines and ideas that you’ll figure out a way to get back on track.

There’s a potential added benefit to this working writer tip. Your new path might improve your story in ways that would never have happened if you’d not spent time in places your characters would never, ever go on their own doing things they’d never do in a million years.

 

Minor Characters

Minor characters are sneaky.  They are necessary to the story but they aren’t supposed to take over.  The problem comes when one or more of them do exactly that.  So what to do?

Depends.  There are two kinds of minor characters.  You need to know which category your minor character belongs to before you can decide what to do about it.

The first category is that in which the minor characters flesh out the story, make it deeper, stronger and better. But if that character could be written out of the story without changing the story itself, then that particular character isn’t essential.  Rein them in, keep them under control.  Do it!

The second category is that in which the minor character is essential but isn’t the character that the story is about.  Same question applies.  Could you write that character out without changing the story?  If the answer is ‘no’ then you should think long and hard before you rein in that character.

Because your story just might be better for enlarging that character’s place and letting him or her take over a larger chunk of the action.

I’m thinking about this because, in my book Spirit Legend that’s going to be featured in a Book Blast starting the 8th of April (drum roll, please) a minor character took over and became a major player.  I didn’t know it was happening until after the book was finished.  It was the reviews that made it very clear that the character of the spirit in the lake was pivotal and important.  Reviewers used words like  ‘charming.’  ‘interesting.’  and ‘endearing.’  And the spirit only came into existence as a device to hang a story on.  Until it took over and I let it run riot because I couldn’t figure out how to rein it in.

Now that I’m deep into Wolf Legend, the same thing is happening to the character of the psychic wolf pup Snowball.  She was supposed to be an afterthought.  She now has a starring role and I’m glad to say that this time around I’m smart enough to recognize what’s happening and run with it.

So expect to see a lot of Snowball in Wolf Legend.  And I’m looking forward to seeing whichever of your minor characters take over and run with your story when you publish your next piece.

Creating Characters

A long time ago, I bought a book that promised to describe forty-five compelling characters that I could use in my fiction.  As I read it, I realized that I knew someone who resembled each and every character it described. And there were forty-five of them!  Wow!

But I realized something.  The author simply described eight basic personality types that can be found in any psych textbook. But each type could be either positive or negative, which doubled the eight to sixteen.  Then each of those sixteen types could become either major or minor characters, which doubled the already doubled number. And so on, until forty-five distinctly different fictional characters were fleshed out.

I thought, hey, if that author could come up with forty-five characters from a list of eight basic personality types, I could do the same with any similar list out there.  And there are several different personality type lists out there.  Just google the term and see what comes up.  Then do what that author did, consider each type from different perspectives.  And you, too, can come up with all the characters you could possibly ever need for all the books you ever intend to write.

Of course, there’s a caveat.  I read the book, enjoyed every page, then ignored it.  I suggest you do the same.  Because, though people truly can be categorized, everyone is unique.  So use the descriptions as basic guides, then flesh them out however you wish.  The resulting characters might resemble people you know.  Or people you can’t believe exist beyond your books.

Either way you’ll have wonderful characters to populate your wonderful stories.

CRITICISM

Sorry, folks.  I wrote this post and it disappeared.  Don’t know where it went.  Don’t know how.  Just that it’s lost somewhere in cyberspace.  So, here it goes again.  Hope this time it stays.  Of course, this won’t be a literal repeat of my first post but it’ll be the gist of it.  It’s about criticism.  (Is that why it disappeared?  Hmmmm.)

One of the nice things about being a ghost writer and writing confession stories is that there is no criticism because they are written anonymously.  No author name, no criticism.  Doesn’t work that way when your name is on the manuscript.  All kinds of people let writers know what they did right.  And wrong.

I once took a commercial story I’d written to a literary writers’ group I belonged to.  They critiqued my manuscript and their criticism would have been very appropriate if I’d wanted my story to be published in a literary journal.  But I didn’t.  I never again took a commercial story to them to be critiqued because I knew that if I followed their suggestions, I’d have a very short career as a writer.

I’ve also had my work critiqued by editors.  Occasionally, when I’d send in a manuscript, it would be returned with scribbed notes in the margins letting me know what subtle things they were looking for that I hadn’t provided.  Believe me, I listened and the next time I sent those editors a manuscript, they got what they wanted because I wanted to be a professional writer.

Next time someone critiques your work, ask yourself some questions.  Who are they?  What’s their background? Why did they say what they did?  Consider whether they are giving criticism that’s valid for your particular work.

Because maybe their criticism was valid.  Maybe not.

Coming of Age as a Writer

When I first started writing professionally, I couldn’t imagine what I’d write about.  Where I’d find inspiration.  Who my characters would be and what would happen to them.  As time passed and I discovered that a steady living as a writer could be had by writing confession stories, everything came clear.  I’d write about myself and anyone and everyone I knew because no one, including me, would ever be embarrassed by what I wrote.  Because confession stories are written anonymously.

I soon learned there was another advantage to writing for the confession market.  By writing about past problems large and small, I could get rid of a lot of emotional baggage that I’d been carrying for a long time.  It worked in much the same way painting or writing or any other creative endeavor works in an institutional setting.  Like when mental patients paint pictures of their demons.  Or write about their nightmares.  It worked and, by the time I’d gone though every negative experience I’d ever had or anyone I knew  had ever had, I was well on my way to being a fairly good writer.  My catharsis was complete.  I started writing happier things and I’ve never stopped since.

Some time later, when I joined a writers’ group, because I had some experience in the writing field, new writers sometimes came to me for advice and to critique their work.  Guess what?  I saw a lot of writers doing the exact same thing I’d done, using their writing as a way of getting things out of their system.  It was such a common phenomenon that I  privately began to call it the ‘cathartic phase’ of becoming a writer.  I suspect we all go through it in one way or another.

I mention this today because, if that’s where you are now, in your own personal cathartic phase, go for it.  Get it out.  Get rid of the angst.  And when the day comes that you realize you don’t have any more negative things to write about, be thankful and find other topics.

Don’t worry that your readers will think you are no longer the same writer as before.  You are that same writer, just without the baggage.  And that’s a good thing.  It means you have come of age as a writer.

WHAT A BEAUTIFUL COVER!

novel... Spirit Legend... cover picture

Meet Ian and Charlie.  Charlie is a forester.  She’s employed by Ian Macallister to care for the piece of Northwoods forest that his company owns.  Macallister Outdoors recently added to their wilderness holdings, and Ian wants Charlie to give him a tour.  If you look at the cover closely, you’ll see a third character. Its in the lake.  Watching.  Listening.

You’ll find all kinds of things on this cover.  The north woods.  The characters of my new book.  The spirit that holds them in thrall when they are stranded beside the tiny lake that sits in the center of the new acquisition.  The attraction between Charlie and Ian.  The spell the spirit casts.  Or does it?  In short, you’ll get a good feel for the story before you read a sentence.

This cover came into existence because I decided to end the torture of creating my own cover and to go with a professional.  I don’t want to admit how many hours… and hours… and hours… I spent creating the covers for my first self-published stories.  And  how comparatively poor they were.

I chose Laura Shinn because I liked her other covers, I liked her, and I hoped she would do a good job.  I knew she’d do better than I could.  I’m amazed with what she came up with in what I suspect was a couple hours of work one evening.  I could be wrong about that, but that’s what I think and is what can happen when you’re a professional and good at what you do.

Thanks, Laura.  And to every other self-pubber out there, consider having a professional cover done.  It won’t break the bank and it will do more to promote your book than anything else I can think of.

My next book will definitely have a professional cover.  I hope Laura will have time to fit me into her schedule.

THE MOST IMPORTANT TIP OF ALL

I learned this tip while still a teenager.  I studied ballet from one of the country’s (perhaps the world’s) best technicians.  She was so good that professional dancers of all kinds who were in Chicago for a gig took whatever classes she could fit them into for the duration of their stay.  They weren’t good enough to be in the advanced classes, so they always ended up in the intermediate classes, the ones I was in.

We students couldn’t help noticing that, almost without exception, they were really bad dancers, much worse than us, and we weren’t even advanced students.  They were so bad that eventually we asked our teacher how they could call themselves professionals when they were terrible.  We expected her to shake her head and say that it was ndeed hard to understand.  Wrong!!!  Instead, she verbally tore into us until we were cowering and chastened and wished we’d never said anything.

They could call themselves professionals, she said, because that’s just what they were.  Professionals.  And we weren’t.  They might not have much inborn talent but they used what talent they had in such a way as to create something that people who worked hard for their money would willingly spend some of it to enjoy whatever those professionals had to offer.  And, between peformances, they worked on their craft and honed it.  Whether they were in the mood or not.  Whether they felt good or not.  Whether they were busy with other things or not.  Because that’s what professionals do.

She cowed us so thoroughly that I never forgot her words.

When I decided to become a professional writer, I knew I had some small amount of talent but it was her words that gave me the courage to quit my day job and go for it.  Because, thanks to that lecture, I knew that inborn ability is only one component of a successful creative career.  And not the most important one.

I knew that if I took what talent I had and worked at writing as hard as I’d work at any job or profession, I could make it as a writer.  And so can you.

WHY CHRISTMAS IS IN JULY

Once, I submitted a story about two of my kids and settled back to wait a few months to hear from the editors.  Instead, less than a week after putting it in the mail, I got a frantic call from an editor wanting to know how quickly I could sign a contract because they wanted it for the edition that was about to go to the presses.  Seems it was their Mother’s Day issue and, though I’d not thought about it being that kind of story when writing it, they felt it filled a spot in that particular holiday issue.  I jumped through a few hoops and the story was in their magazine in time for Mother’s Day.

Believe me, that’s not the norm.  Normally, if the holidays are approaching… any holidays… and suddenly a lovely story idea relevant to the holiday flits through your mind, by all means, sit down and write it while it’s still fresh in your mind.  Then polish it.  Edit it for grammar and flow.  And set it aside for six months.

Because publishers work six  months ahead for holiday themed publications.

This also applies if you are self-publishing electronically.  Yep, all those lovely Christmas stories that magically appear on Amazon or Smashwords as the holidays draw near were probably written in June or July in order for the writer/publisher to re-write, edit, find or create a cover, format for e-readers, and publish in time for it to be on-line for holiday reading.

Which means that we writers must think about Christmas in June or July.  Thanksgiving in May or June.  And so on… and so on… and so on… for each and every holiday.  Which also means that, for any writer wanting to write about Christmas, the holiday might as well be in the middle of summer and the Fourth of July be celebrated while the snow flies.

So, if writing holiday stories is on your to-do list, right now while you’re thinking about it, take next years’ calendar and make notes in large letters on the page for whatever month is six months before the holiday that you want to write about.  Then write your story or novel.  Then rewrite it.  Make it perfect in every way.  And, if you are sending it to a publisher, submit it six months in advance of the holiday.  If  you are self-pubbing electronically, make a note on your calendar to remind you to publish it in time for holiday reading.  (Because, if you don’t, you just might forget.)

I admit that it’s a bit odd, thinking of Christmas when everyone else is celebrating the Fourth of July.  And the Fourth of July when everyone else is thinking of Christmas.  But you can do it.   Because you are a writer.

A NOVEL TEMPLATE

Last time I gave out a template for writing short stories and said that, if expanded, it could also become a template for novels.  This post is to explain a bit about how to do that.  Of course, as always, if your writing method differs from mine, do whatever is right for you.

If you wish, you can change the one-or-two sentence descriptions to one-or-two paragraphs to allow for more depth in your characters and in your story.

The big difference, though, is the part that was glossed over in the short story template.  The part that tells you to construct scenes that connect the beginning scene to the conclusion.  In a short story they will necessarily be short scenes, perhaps a few paragraphs each.  But in a book, instead of outlining scenes, you will outline chapters… the story you want to tell divided into segments leading up to the climax… and each chapter may contain several scenes.

When you write each chapter use the template for short stories as if each chapter was a short story.  Which, in a way, it is.  Because each chapter should have a beginning that will outline the problem of that chapter and propel the characters into action.  And a conclusion.  Not the conclusion of the main problem of the book but the conclusion of the smaller but still significant problem that chapter deals with.  And if it doesn’t deal with a problem intrinsic to the plot, then seriously consider deleting that particular chapter.  And each chapter also needs a conclusion, preferably one that resolves the chapter problem and leads the characters towards the next problem they will face.

And that’s a simplified version of how to write a novel.  More in future posts.

THE FIRST STEP TO A STORY

When I first started writing, I didn’t start selling.  The manuscripts went out.  And came back.  And went out.  And came back.  And so on…  until I read an article that contained a short story template.  I followed that template.  Why not?  I couldn’t do any worse than I was already doing.

Lo and behold.  I started selling.  Even when an editor didn’t buy my manuscript, they wrote nice comments saying it was obvious that I was a professional writer and that they’d like to see more of my work.

The only difference was that template.  So I’m going to share it with you now hoping that it will help you, too, if you aren’t yet selling.

1) Describe a main character in one or two sentences.  2) Describe a second main character is one or two sentences.  3) If there is a problem between them, describe that problem in one sentence.  4) Describe in one sentence the problem that will be the focus of your story. 5) Describe in one sentence a scene in which your main character will be forced to begin dealing with the problem. 6) Describe in one sentence the resolution to the problem. 

The beginning of the story is where the problem emerges and the main character must deal with it.  The conclusion is the resolution.  The rest of the story consists of the scenes between the beginning and the resolution. 

So there it is.  This template is short and simple and it works,  And if you expand each part of it expoentially, instead of a short story, you have a novel.