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Story Weaving on Steroids: Painful Pasts

15 Jun

This is part of a series of post that gives you tips, tricks, and dirty little secrets that will help pump up your plot, and make your story an irresistible read! Today’s trick:

Painful Pasts

Making characters interesting is your job as a writer. One way to make a character more interesting is to give them some scars. Giving a character a painful past does a couple of things it hooks the reader with empathy, gives you a better basis for their character, and can also add suspense and tension to your plot.

Characters with painful pasts, whether it be coming from a broken home or something more dramatic like being scared by the poisonous sword of an alien warrior bring automatic empathy with them. When readers discover the situation that has scarred your character it creates instant empathy (which is a key part in hooking a reader into your story). Readers may not have been in the exact situation as your character, but they understand the emotions that go with it. Everyone can relate to fear, anxiousness, and sadness.

Giving a character a terrible memory of their pasts also sets up a basis to build that character from. People who come from bad families or have gone through traumatic experiences are often deeply effected by them. A traumatic experience will shape your characters personality. For some it will make them introverted, others will become bitter,  and still others will go through their life trying to be positive despite their past. Seeing the path your character takes after their traumatic experience will tell you a lot about their personality and make them easier to write about.

Most importantly, a difficult past or experience can provide tension and conflict for you plot. Bringing out a characters past slowly, or shrouding it in mystery will give your readers something to keep reading for. This is an especially good tactic for characters whose perspective you are not writing for. Trying to discover someones past can be a very good subplot.  A persons past can also be reviled suddenly and used as a major plot point (or turning point) in a story.

If you haven’t figured it out yet I am a HUGE Avatar fan!

Granted, a painful past is useful to add interest to your story, but they shouldn’t be used ALL the time. Not every character you write needs to come from an abusive home, or have burn marks all over their faces. A couple good examples of painful pasts that I can think of are Zuko from the show Avatar: The Last airbender. Zuko was forced at the age of 13 to dual his father in an ‘Agni Kai’ (one on one) fire bending battle because he spoke up in a war meeting and insulted a general, thus insulting his father. From then on he was left with a scar on his face, and huge dishonor on his name. This shapes Zuko into a conflicted character, part loving, part loathing his father. This will lead him to make the biggest and most difficult decision of his life: should he side with his father or with the Avatar?

Another good example can been seen in Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver. Sam, a werewolf, had his wrists slit by his parents in a bath tub while they held him down because when they found out what he was (at the age of 12)they believed they could ‘bleed the wolf out of him’. Ever since Sam can’t even look at a bath tub. This also shapes him into a shy, introverted person. And of course keeps him very far away from bath tubs!

Like I said there are plenty of good books without characters with Painful Pasts, Lauren Oliver’s novel ‘Before I Fall’ is a really good novel about a privileged girl named Samantha King. She’s never had anything bad at all happen to her. Oliver uses the plot to keep tension and if Sam had had a bad past it simply would have cluttered the plot and taken away from the impactfulness of Samantha having to repeat the same day over and over again. It also would have made the plot null and void because she probably wouldn’t have been so stuck up or unkind to others had she struggled as a child. This would have completely changed the novel!

All and all a painful pasts is a very useful trick, but should be used sparingly and in the right places!

Check out other Story Weaving on Steroids posts

 

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When Your Best isn’t Enough

12 Jun

You just pause… re-read the last paragraph… stop… look around the room. This can’t possibly be me at my best, right? My inspiration it’s lost under a pillow, or stuffed at the bottom of my closet. This, this on the page can’t possibly be what I came up with, can it?

Even when you’re giving it your all it sucks. Gosh it just sucks. The words don’t sound right. Every sentence is lopsided, and the dialogue sounds stilted and awkward. You just want to vomit. Yeah, because vomit might actually look more appealing than this mess.

We’ve all felt this way. Even when you are trying  give your best it just falls flat.  It’s frustrating. It’s what makes us dread writing, and in a way, what makes us love it too.

After all, there is nothing like a writing high. I don’t think there’s a drug in the world that can duplicate the feeling. That drive to write, to create, that just never ends, words are bubbling up in your mind so fast that it’s as if you’re living the scene in your mind as it spills out onto the page, and when you look back over it your just so… proud. It’s not even close to the right word, but that is as close as I can get to describing it. Pride, relief, accomplishment.

Without the lows, the slugging through terrible, or what feels terrible. Without the slam on your brakes wrong turns, and the stink of cheesy lines, you’d never know what the really good thing felt like.

But when your best doesn’t feel good enough what do you do?

If you can answer this, you have the answer to writers block, to everything that stalls, stops, or slows us down as writers.

And my answer? Gosh man will I feel dumb saying this, because it’s not the answer you guys want. It’s not the answer I want. That’s why you’re sitting here reading this right? Why you keep reading writing blogs, why you Google ‘how to get rid of writers block’? It’s because you hate the answer; an answer YOU ALREADY HAVE. I bet you can guess what it is before I even say it.

Write. Write, write write write write write write.

I would read this same advice over and over, but it never got through to me. Sometimes it still doesn’t make it through to my fingers from my brain. Okay, A LOT of the time it doesn’t. I just kept searching for a different answer and I never found one.

You won’t either.

That’s the reason your best isn’t good enough, it’s because you have absolutely convinced yourself (consciously or not) that there is another answer to your writing woes. That the act you’re doing now, or have done, or plan on doing is not good enough to make you better.

So every time you tell yourself it’s not good enough. Ask yourself why. I guarantee that every time you write you DO get better (whether you realize it or not!). Just keep writing.

Go on now! Write!

😉

 

Got Flat Characters?

7 Jun

Before you ask where you’re going, know where you’ve been.

Everybody has a past. Including fictional people. And that’s always easy (for me at least) to forget. You aren’t writing about a person in a single moment in time. They didn’t suddenly appear simply to exist in that one moment, or series of moments, you are writing about. Before whatever is happening in your scene other things happened.

I used to find it really difficult to construct characters. I didn’t know how to make them 3D, heck the word 3D was foreign to me. I wrote characters about as spicy as oatmeal, and much less interesting. The only reason my stores functioned at all was because I’d stolen the construction of a story from other novels. I understood what a story was supposed to look like, but not WHY it looked like that. This left me with a couple of servings of oatmeal and some were-wolves. Yeah, I wrote were-wolf novels when I was 13. I admit it. Really BAD were-wolf novels.

Anyway, as I grew as a writer I discovered something about people. At first I didn’t even connect this to writing, I just started musing about it one day. Probably in church or math class and realized that people- who they are inside and out- are created through memories, and experiences. It wasn’t until later that I connected that idea to writing.

Soon I started to realize how flat my characters were,and that’s when everything fell into place, I suddenly knew what was missing: their pasts! And that idea right there is how I build characters.

The easiest way to discover a character- for me- is to discover their past.

What I’m saying is if you had grown up in a third world country, as an orphan, wouldn’t you be different from who you are now?  Even if you maintained your personality (whom many will argue is in-part genetic) being in that situation would change your outlook on the world. It would effect EVERYTHING about you. And different people will take it differently, for some it would turn them bitter, others would only appreciate what they had more.

And that’s one of the things I love about writing. I get to look into these peoples minds and pick at them like last nights leftovers! It’s awesome! I love being able to explore the situations they were in and understand why they handled them the way they did, and how it effected them.

It’s gorgeous! I think I’m geeking out right now… let me just take a minute to calm myself.

*one minute*

Okay, I’m good now. *Ahem* As I was saying, understanding characters is about knowing where they come from, what they’ve seen, and what they’ve done about it.

For example, I’ll use my MC from my novel CARVE (whose trailer you can see in THIS POST.)

Her name is Sage Mason.

Background situation: grew up as an invalid, with a terminal disease.

So, this above situation is what’s going to shape her character. From here you just have to ask yourself what kind of person she is. Will growing up isolated make her bitter, angry, or will it make her fearful of the outside world? Will she yearn to leave her home or resign herself to die? What does she do when she sits in that house all alone? How does she react to others? Is she afraid of strangers, intrigued, or just jealous?Does she believe their will be something after her death?

Once you understand how she has reacted to the situation, and how she feels about growing up in that situation you know who she is. You understand her core character traits, and BAM! You have a person. Not a character. A freakin’ person! Awesome right?

Maybe I’m over simplifying this. How do you all build characters?

 

Novel Anatomy: Bones

11 Mar

Plotting. Cringe, go ahead, do it and get it over with. I shudder even thinking the word, but it’s a necessary part in building a novel. Up until about … say a year ago I considered myself a pantser (you know no plot, just write). Huh! I was an idiot. I spent so much time wondering why my novel’s were epic fails that I couldn’t see the fact that they had terrible structure. Sure, I could write line to line in a way that sounded pretty good, but having it all come together? Nope, wasn’t working.

So, for those of you who saw the pieces of my novel I’d posted on here last year and made lovely comments about how un-first drafty they were. You are wonderful, but had you seen the big picture you’d sing a different song. Anyway, lately I’ve been working on a new novel, and I started doing a structural outline. It involves what I call “layering”. You start with the bones, then the muscle, and finally the nerves and skin. So we are metaphorically doing novel anatomy.

I’m now going to share with you part one in Novel Anatomy: The bones.

If you all recall I had a post up the first month or so I had this site called “The Golden Ring of Moments” it was an incoherent thing that listed the 7 key moments readers have to have in a novel. If you’d like to interpret that you can see it HERE.

The Bones of novel anatomy is loosely based on that. I really like plotting this way and find it easy and really direct, because you’re giving yourself a specific set of questions that have specific answer. I set this up in a word document (or in OneNote if you have it, OneNote is awesome by the way).

Here it is:

1. You have to ESTABLISH THE WORLD (if your writing contemporary you don’t really need to worry about this, but in fantasy/dystopian/etc. this is key!) You have to do this with in your first chapter or two (depending on their length) so your reader feels like they understand there surroundings.In this bullet, list things you’ll do to establish your world, specific details, situations, time, place, etc.

2. At the same time as bullet one you also have to do bullet two, which is ESTABLISHING YOUR MC’s RELATIONSHIPS with close family, and or important characters. While you are world building we should be seeing how and who your MC relates to. (if anyone) so in this bullet, list key relationships and how your MC feels about them.

3. Finally, with in the first couple of chapters, and this goes along with one and two, you need to establish WHAT YOUR MC WANTS MOST and why they want it, and most importantly (to the plot) why they can’t have it. So for this bullet just list those. What do they want? Why? And why don’t they have it?

These first three bullets can really go together, but I separate them. Otherwise bullet one get’s really lengthy.

4. After the set up you need to establish your TURNING POINT. I’m sure you all have heard this term before, but it’s basically the point in the novel that springs the character into action. Forces them to change, or go somewhere, or do something. Basically just fill in the blank for this bullet: And then everything changed because________________

5. Then, logically of course you have the characters REACTION. How do they respond to the turning point? What do they do?

6. Everything has changed, our character has reacted and is now hurdling head first into solving the issue (whatever it is), so it’s time for a PINCH POINT. This is a moment in the story that ‘ups the stakes’ something needs to happen to make the character realizes how serious the conflict is. Something needs to scare, shock, or hurt them so that they kick it into full gear. Things need to get more dangerous. So answer this question: What happens that makes the conflict more difficult to solve or more scary to face?

7. Now things are dangerous, your character feels like they are deep in the woods of the conflict and then…. A BIG SECRET IS REVEALED. Now, that  the character realizes how bad things are they need to discover something. SOMETHING BIG. Something that will totally turn the novel on its head. In this bullet tell us what changes the conflict for the character, what do they realize/discover/ or are told that makes them think differently about the conflict.

8. Armed with this valuable piece of new information your character once again attempts to solve the conflict and then… ALL SEEMS LOST. The antagonist in one last-ditch effort seems to vanquish your MC. They were so close and then it is swiped away from them. What does this moment look like in you novel? Why does everything seem lost? When does it happen?

9. Finally, we get to the SOLUTION/RESOLUTION. Basically this is how your novel ends. How does you MC get out of bullet 8? How do they solve the conflict? What relationships do they mend? Which do they destroy?You’re briefly wrapping up your novel in point 9.

Yikes! That was a long post… sorry about that! Anyway what do you guys think of outlining this way? Like it? hate it? How do you all outline?

We Survived… Fictitious Situations

17 Feb

I was sitting in English class today, doing what I usually do in that class. Reading. One of my closets friends was sitting next to me, and doing the same.

She suddenly looks up from her book (City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare) and glances over at me mumbling something about where “The Silent City” was. I answered her and she goes:

“Oh Yeah! We went there in the last book”

I gave her a funny look and responded, ” We went there?”

by that point I had begun giggling a bit, and my friend rolls her eyes and says to me:

“Yes WE. I travel with these characters. We survived a lot of things together!”

Then she began spouting off all of the things she had “survived” (numerous near death experiences of the supernatural and mortal kind).

I just laughed, and said “Oh yeah? Well I survived the Hunger Games… twice.” At which point I laughed at my own joke.

Why have I just recounted this little English class mumbling? Because even though I laughed at her, later I thought: she’s right. She is ABSOLUTELY RIGHT.

Every time we read we live the book (or at least the good ones) we smile,and travel, and cry, and nearly die. Sometimes we actually do…

I have lived a thousand lives, and fallen in love a hundred times. I have thrown daggers, and been struck by them. I have bled and watched others bleed. I have fainted under the heat of the sun, and tasted the salt of the ocean in my mouth.

I have survived a million lives.

And that as writers should be OUR GOAL! We need our readers to travel with our characters, to hold hands with them, and not just watch them. They need to be there. A player in the game not a bystander. Readers need to be involved. Grabbed by their throats and yanked into the text.

How?

Give them something to hold. In other words give them information that they know that other characters don’t. Give them secrets, give them something to latch onto that makes them feel like they have a part in the novel. By giving a reader “something to hold”, you make them feel just as responsible for the turn out of the novel as the other characters (even if they won’t affect the outcome at all).

Another thing that will further the above technique is making characters relate-able. I don’t know how much I’ve stressed this to writer friends, but giving characters things that others can understand is important. By implanting a similar characteristic of a reader into a character you encourage the reader to create an emotional attachment to the character. This gives them an investment in the character, and thus in the novel.

Convincing a reader to survive alongside a character is hard work and takes a lot of practice, but using these two tips can help you lay the ground work.

What have you all survived recently?

 

Because It’s a Balancing Act?

16 Jan

I get asked a lot how I keep myself in check. How I manage to do all this ‘stuff’ I do, and not pull my hair out and fall apart, or you know, faint. I guess I’m suppose to tell you all how it is that you can balance writing,running a blog, critiquing others manuscripts, being in school, having a social life, playing a sport, playing music, writing music, reading, writing reviews on what you’re reading, doing art, and selling said art. But, honestly I can’t tell YOU how to do all that.

I can only tell you that I do, and it’s not without effort, or struggle, or sometimes collapsing on my bed, and wondering why I even bother because there is no possible way that I can accomplish it all without screaming.

Sometimes I DO scream…

Life in general is a balancing act. everyone has things to balance. Their work, kids, school, training their dog, running marathons. And everyone manages to do it in a different way.

WE ALL BALANCE DIFFERENT THINGS.

WE ARE ALL DIFFERENT.

I for instance am an insane procrastinator, so I know I have to get things done early, shut down my internet, smile, grin and bear it until I’m done. Other people (who are not cursed with procrastination) don’t have to do those things.

The thing is that we all need to prioritize. Realizing what is most important and divvying out your time accordingly. You need to understand that YOU CAN”T DO EVERYTHING. I have a problem with this as you can see from the above list of things I do. But, if you can believe it, I actually have rounded myself in by cutting out DeviantArt, a personal (non-writing) blog,photo a day photography challenge, and peer tutoring. Unfortunately I still have a lot to do.

So being honest with yourself is a big thing. Can you really make time to do all these things? Can you really manage another beta partner right now?Will adding another blog on WordPress really help you reach your goals? Will it make you a better person? Will it change you for the better? Will it change others?

Now, if you are being honest with yourself, and you know all the things you simply can not do without and have accepted that you can’t do it all then it’s time to look at how wisely your spending your time now.

Browsing the net for an hour is fun, sure. But is it helping you do any of those things?

ARE YOU WASTING YOUR TIME?

And I guess that is the whole point of this post. Don’t waste your time. You only have so much of it. In fact it’s the only thing you can’t get more of. EVER. So ask yourself this:

Is your balancing act really a balancing act? Or, are you forcing it to be one? Are you stealing half-hours to catch the end of that re-run of Burn Notice instead of writing/exercising/ playing piano/etc.?

My life isn’t a balancing act.

I make it one.

You make your life one.

Drop what you can, but ask yourself do you have to?

 

UPDATE: On Thin Ice FF Contest Results will be up this Week! KEEP ON THE WATCH

Novel Idea Awards: Best Blog Series!

26 Dec

Hey, it’s time for the first badge award on Novel Ideas!

My first award is for best blog series of 2011! This was a really hard choice for me, but I finally decided on a series from “Of a Writerly Sort” called “Lessons from the Monster“.

Basically it’s a dissection series where Gabrielle (OAWS admin) dissects her seven part series of novels (which she calls ‘the monster’), and shows us what we can learn from her mistakes.

I chose this series for a lot of reasons, but my main two were these:

1. It’s extremely educational. I learned a lot listening to Gabby dissect her novel scene by scene, or even line by line. I’m a person who learns well being shown things, rather than being told, so having an example right in front of me really let the information sink.

2. It was amazing that she was willing to share her first/second draft material with us! It takes serious guts for me to send off a 5th draft to betas, so sharing unedited portions of a novel with my readers would scare the bageebers out of me! Gabrielle’s bravery definitely paid off, and I really appreciated it!

For both of those reasons, and many others (like the fact that her whole site is amazing for instance!) I am now bestowing the Best Blog Series of 2011 to Gabrielle for “Lessons From the Monster

Here is your badge Gabrielle! Enjoy!

I hope you all check out Gabby’s series, and stay tuned for the next NI award!

REMINDER:

Remember to comment on this post and other Novel Idea Award’s posts for a chance to win SHATTER ME!

And be sure to enter the ON THIN ICE FLASH FICTION CONTEST for a chance to win CLOCKWORK PRINCE BY CASSANDRA CLARE!