Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Adding in the History




I’m writing a historical fiction novel, which was such a big, daunting thing to me when I started (and still kind of is sometimes), that I was tempted to make the storyline take place in an alternate universe just so I wouldn’t have to do the research to make it somewhat historically accurate.
Yes, that’s called laziness. I’d always written fantasy before, and the joy of fantasy is you can make up your own reality and no one can tell you it’s wrong. But, at some point I decided it had to be done. My novel wanted to take place in the real world. Still, I decided to write out a first draft before doing any historical research. I didn’t want my story to be defined by my research; I just wanted the research to make the story believable in the time period I was writing it.
What helped me about writing my draft before I researched is now I know exactly what I’m looking for. I made a lot of notes as I went along of things I was unsure about, questions I had about what technology existed at that time, what clothes were in style, what they did for fun, what people did for work, etc. I had vague ideas from things like A Room with a View and Downton Abbey, but sometimes you get really specific in a novel and you don’t want to get it horribly wrong. It’s kind of terrifying sometimes, that that one history expert one day will read what I’m writing and just be horrified at me. So I try.
Now that I’m closing in on finishing my first draft (I think my personal NaNoWriMo is going to be making myself just get that done!), I’ve started gathering some books. Wikipedia only got me so far. My time period is late 1890s-early 1900s England, so the very end of the Victorian era and the very beginning of the Edwardian. Turns out, not the most popular era to write educational books on. It’s been harder than I thought to find the material I want. I don’t know what people did before the days of Amazon and Goodreads, because the library and the bookstore did not come through like I thought they would. Thanks to the internet, I've found some good books and some of them got sent straight to my Kindle.
The Boer War also factors largely into the story line of my novel. It was actually amazing how well the Boer War fit into the story line I had already made up with knowing at all what I was doing beforehand. It’s like it was meant to be. The Boer War took place in Africa, most of the soldiers died of diseases, and it was just a badly planned disaster—perfect for my narrative purposes. Hurrah. But, I found a total of two books at the library on it. A little bit depressing, except that one of them was written by Winston Churchill. Did you know he was a journalist in the Boer War before he was prime minister of England? I sure didn’t.
Some of my history-related questions are getting so specific I may have to go find myself a history professor someday and bombard him with my author craziness. I wonder if he’ll even know everything I want to know. Probably by that point I should figure that no one will know and be satisfied. Then I will have to begin the task of deciding what needs to be included in my story and what will just be exhausting info-dump. I hope that having already written my first draft will help with that too. I’ll just be inserting the info I’ve found where I already know I need it. Wish me luck.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Outline quickie

NaNoWriMo is coming.

Pantsers will jump into a brand new story with merely an inkling of an idea. They can stop reading this post right now. Plotters should have started a few months ago. As a born-again plotter, I need to go into the month with more than just a notion. And, as a person whose been busy the last few weeks (haven’t we all), I need something quick.

Remembering a recent Writer’s Digest article, I pulled it up. It is called “7 Steps to Create a Flexile Outline for Any Story” and written by K.M. Weiland, a plotting guru.  

The seven steps are:
1. Craft your premise
2. Roughly sketch scene ideas
3. Interview your characters
4. Explore your settings
5. Write your complete outline
6. Condense your outline
7. Put your outline into action

KM uses this approach in a more drawn out fashion. She may spend as much as six months filling three notebooks to complete step 2. We’ve only got two weeks. My goal now is to slap something down, taking the rough ideas thats been bouncing around in the head for a while. The following is my interpretation of Weiland’s suggestions, watered down for quick application to your NaNo story. Go to the article for complete details.

1. Craft your premise
Weiland and John Truby advocate developing a strong premise, the basic idea of the story. It should answer these questions:
-Who is the protagonist?
-What is the situation, the hero’s personal condition at the beginning? How will that condition be changed by the hero himself or the antagonistic force?
-What is the protagonist’s objective? What moral choices will they have to make to gain the objective?
-Who or what is the opponent that stands in the way of the hero achieving their goal?
-What misfortune or disaster must the hero overcome?
-What conflict will arise from the MC’s reaction to the misfortune? What is the logical flow of cause and effect action throughout the story?


2. Roughly sketch scene ideas
Write a list of the ideas you have thus far for the story. It is not important to have all the details worked out or know the order of the scenes, just record them. I would suggest brainstorming session of possible scenes and events if the story is undeveloped. Weiland says to look back over the list and highlight any ideas that raise questions. Last is to go back and address each of the highlighted questions.

3. Interview your characters
In order for your characters to carry the plot, you will need to know all about them, not necessarily for their hole lives, but as they are when they come into the story. Work backward from the moment they become involved in the plot, at the disaster listed in the premise. What events have led them to this moment and caused them to react to it as they do? There are online resources that have a list of questions, or you may go freestyle, asking each character questions and then allow them to answer.

4. Explore your settings
You will need to intimately know your setting before you begin to write. Scenes can can shift from place to place, but the time and world where your story occurs should be fundamental to your plot.

5. Write your complete outline
Armed with this basic understanding of your story you’re ready to seriously plot your story. Using the ideas listed in step 2, develop a linear timeline, scene by scene, molding the existing ideas into a solid structure. You can be as extensive as you like, writing out a single sentence or something detailed, identifying the key components of each scene’s structure. These include, who the narrating character is, their goal and obstacles to the goal, the outcome and character’s reaction, and the lead-in to the next scene. Watch for possible lapses of logic or blank areas.

6. Condense your outline
As the outline may have a lot of rambling and thinking out loud, condense it down to the main points so that you have something easier to deal with as you write. You may want to write out the scenes on index cards, or do so using a program such a Scirvener or yWriter. 


7. Put your outline into action
Armed with a highly organized plan, you are now ready to write. Begin each writing session by looking over the outline and reading the notes for that scene. Work out any remaining issues before writing.  This is just a guideline to direct the session’s writing. Should an unexpected idea pop up, feel free to pursue it, knowing you can always fall back to the outline if that new venue does not work out.

Okay, that was easy. Now all yew have to do is plug in a story. We’ve got 14 days. Go.


(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Critique Groups

If I could give only one piece of advice to those who want to write for children and teens, it would be to find a good critique group and make a commitment to it. I value my critique group more than you can imagine. Some of us have been in it for more than 10 years, while others are fairly new. They are all amazing writers, and as we have evolved, we have learned what works for us. Most importantly, we have learned how to offer really useful and necessary critiques, which is definitely a skill that can be learned and perfected and which doesn't necessarily just happen.

How to find or form a critique group:

One easy way is to check out the SCBWI walk-in critique groups via the web site. These are walk-in groups, so you can simply arrive and check it out. You might find others with whom you'd like to start a regular group.

While on the web site, you can also contact one of our region's critique group coordinators to get their help in finding others near you.

Attend local writing events, including SCBWI meetings and conferences, where you might meet others to form a group or others who are looking for a new group member.

Post on the SCBWI Utah/southern Idaho Facebook page and see if others want to form a group with you.


How do critique groups work?

There are several logistical choices available to a group.

PLACE and FREQUENCY: Some groups meet weekly, others monthly. Some are online groups. The group might have to try different meeting options to find what works best for that unique group of people. My critique group meets in one another's homes. I've been in other groups that meet in a public place or the home of just one group member or a mentor.

MANUSCRIPT SUBMISSION: I've seen this issue handled dozens of ways. In one group we brought several copies of our submissions to the meeting, where each person would receive a copy to read along as the author read out loud. This was fun for me, as I love being read to, but it had some limitations as far as critiques. Reading aloud took up much of our meeting time, and the critiques usually weren't very in-depth, as the readers never had time to ponder or reread the piece. My current critique group sends in 1-2 chapters (we are all working on novels, so this works for us) about a week before the group meets. It is up to each group member to read all the submissions before coming to the meeting. Then we use our meeting time more efficiently, as we jump right into critiques. Some groups do only a few pages of each manuscript each time, while others will do large chunks. How you handle this depends on a lot of factors, such as how many people are in the group, how much each person is writing between meetings, and how much time you have during a meeting. My group meets on Saturday evenings, so we can take more or less time if we feel like it. A group I used to be in met on Wednesday evenings and had only two hours to get through about eight manuscripts, so we were very focused and limited.

NUMBER OF PEOPLE: I think the ideal size of a critique group is somewhere between 3-8 people. More than that is just unwieldy in terms of having enough time to give each person a useful critique. You want at least three people so you have a diversity of opinions. I value the varied opinions of my critique group members, because if they ALL agree, I am pretty certain what needs to be revised. And if they don't all agree, I can pick and choose which approach I might take.

HOW TO CRITIQUE: This is the crucial piece. Some people like to focus on commas and spelling. That's not critique. I suggest focusing on questions. If something brings up a question for a reader, that is useful information for the author. If you're writing a mystery, those questions may be exactly what you're going for. On the other hand, maybe you thought you were being really clear, but the critiquers' questions indicate you need to do some revising to get at the clarity you want. Another way to look at the big picture is to think about the main elements like character, setting, plot, world building, etc. Sometimes it's fun to bring some useful exercises or information from any conference or workshop you've attended and focus on that element in all the manuscripts. The "sandwich" critique is always a nice way to approach a work: say the things you like in the manuscript, then concentrate on problem areas, then end with more nice things.

CHOOSING/ADDING MEMBERS: Our critique group is straightforward and sometimes ruthless. We are all veteran critiquers who are used to the give and take of brutal critique (not mean or harsh, but just absolutely honest), and not everyone is up for that. Some people have less thick skins and require a softer approach. We screen any potential new members to make sure they are up for our kind of blunt critique. If everyone can be honest about what they are ready for, it helps. I find it's also helpful if all the members of the group are writing in the same genre--such as picture books or YA. One magazine writer in a group I used to be in felt like her two pages each month versus everyone else's full chapter was just not a fair give and take. She was not the best fit for the group.

My best advice is to find a group of fellow children's writers and jump in. Be patient with each other and with the process as you find your way as a unit. If you feel like you don't know what you're doing, maybe occasionally bring in a more experienced author for some mentoring, or do some research. There are plenty of books on starting critique groups. Attending conferences and workshops will also teach you skills that will help you improve your critiquing skills.

by Neysa CM Jensen
in Boise, Idaho


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Writing Without Pants

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am on a four-week sabbatical from my writing job, and of course, I'm spending it writing. I'm now in my fourth week, and it has gone very well. So well, in fact, that I have been able to start a new project.

Usually, I think about a new story for months, even years. Not this time. I'm working on a story I've been thinking about for about a month.

What that means is, I don't have a plan. I have a concept and setting and a character type, and that's about it. In the past, when I've started writing, I've had a character and some major plot points. I've known more or less where I want the story, what I want it to be. I don't really outline, but I write a brief summary of the story as a way of thinking through it.

This time, I'm totally pantsing it. Some prefer the term "discovery writing." That's not a bad term, but it doesn't seem to fit. I feel more like I'm building a house by putting up random walls in random places without even considering a foundation and hoping that eventually they'll become a dream house. I'm not even sure all those walls are on the same lot.

They call it "pantsing," but there's a constant fear that it will end up more like that dream where you're walking around school or work or wherever and discover you're not wearing pants.

To be sure, I am discovering things. Around 30,000 words in and I have a better idea who my main character is and what some of his relationships are. I still don't really know what he wants. I'm starting to feel little twinges about what he might want and what his character arc might be. Weird things are happening to him, and I know how that ended up happening, but I don't know why or what he's going to do about it.

In a way, I guess I'm doing my own mini Nano. Just getting the words down, building scenes that may or may not survive, and will definitely not survive in their present order. As I write, I learn more about some aspects of what's going on, but rather than going back to fix what I've already done, I just keep plugging away.

I don't know how this will turn out. It's frustrating. I've never written without at least a vague idea of a direction, and I don't think I like it. But this week, while I still have pretty much as writing time as I want thanks to a very supportive wife and family, I'm just putting down words, about 2,000 a day.

The words are flowing, they're just flowing in all directions over a flood plain rather than in a controlled channel. It's a strange way to write.

But as long as the words keep coming, I'll keep letting them. I just hope that eventually, I'll be able to create a livable house that I'm proud of and want to show off.

Monday, October 13, 2014

NaNoWriMo Tips to Success

By Julie Daines

With NaNoWriMo looming in the very near future, I thought I'd share a few tips that have helped me. If you know me at all, you know I'm a huge NaNo fan. All of my published books are NaNo projects. When I NaNo, I'm in it to win it.

So this Monday and on my next post--on the 27th, I'll put some quick NaNo tips on the blog.

1) Make it work for you. Advice on how to succeed at NaNoWriMo is flooding the internet this time of year. Sift through it all and find what works for you. If you try to force yourself into a method that doesn't work for you, you will have a hard time succeeding.

2) Plan ahead - even if it's just getting to know your characters. If you're an outliner, great, outline as much as you can, even if most of it doesn't end up in the book. (During Nano you have to keep your mind open and not get stuck trying to stick to an outline that's not working.)

If you're not an outliner, at the very least, do some serious preparation in getting to know your characters. The better you know your characters, the faster you can write because you will know what they would do in every situation. You will know their desires and objectives. You will know how to raise conflict and create story by denying them those desire and objectives. It will help with character arc.

Get your research done ahead of time. Research is a great way to generate ideas for your story, so do as much ahead of time as possible.

3) Be accountable.  Tell everyone you are doing NaNoWriMo in November. That way they'll ask how it's going and you'll have to answer. Give them an opportunity to cheer you on. Join online or local groups of NaNoers that have places to post your word count. Do word sprints with friends online. Go to NaNo write-ins. Let your competitive nature give you a motivational edge.

4) Adopt a new mindset.  It's easy to spend years writing a novel, so for many, the thought of writing one in 30 days is an insuperable barrier. But not if you change your mindset. It's been said that writing a first draft is like shoveling sand into a sandbox that you will use later to build a sandcastle.

So it is with NaNoWriMo. Don't expect anything but a very rough, very detailed outline by the time it's over. But once you get your butt in the chair and write without any inhibition, you will be amazed at what you can do. It's easier to keep track of plot, easier to delve deep into your characters because you spend so much time with them. No editing. No fear.

5) Just do it. Excitement and passion will get you started, but you'll quickly find that it is discipline and determination that carry you to the end. Don't get behind. Try to get ahead in word count as quickly as possible. Have a cushion. Kick spelling, grammar, finding the perfect word or the perfect metaphor out the door. Dedicate yourself to getting the backbone plot out in those 50K words. Then look forward to January to start making it perfect.

Do you have any tips you'd like to share or questions about NaNoWriMo?

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Pre NaNoWriMo

Ah, nothing like autumn. Summer heat gives way to a refreshing crispness in the air. Turning leaves offer glorious color for the eyes and an earthiness for the olfactory senses. Pumpkin pie, football, jack-o-lanterns, and candy corn. NaNoWriMo is just around the corner.

Are you getting your NaNo on?

I’m not sure if I am or not. Making good progress on the current WIP, I’m not sure I want to stop and change gears. And there’s last year’s NaNo project waiting to be dealt with. But other ideas swirl around the brain. Articles on NaNoWriMo keep popping up and I start to see merits in going for it. I do love the idea of the thing - write, write, write and don’t worry about editing. You can fix it later. The month is pure word count with a rough draft to show by December 1.

Everyone has their own way to go about this writing marathon. The most common way to take a zero editing approach. That actually can be refreshing. If word count is the driving force, editing is the roadblock. It hinders momentum. For eleven months of the year, my daily word count is hampered by my self-editor. During November, I freely and wantonly let the words flow. Rather than nitpick and constantly correct, when trouble arises, I start the sentence over and proceed. It’s such a rapid way to produce that I try to write that way the rest of the year. But that little self-editor really is a pain in the tush. By the middle of January he returns, digging in deep like winter, slowing me down.

There is also the panting vs plotting argument. Taking time out to plan out the novel slows the actual writing. I am becoming more of a believer in the plotting approach. Rambling for page after page may add to word count in the first draft, but leads to hard choices in the revision stage. Now is the time to figure out those major plot twists and character traits.

To NaNo or not, that is the question. Am I ready to ignore family and responsibilities and plunk out 1700 words a day? I’ve never achieved the NaNoWriMo  50,000 goal, but each year I’ve ended with a solid start to a new story. I could live with that.


(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The False Prince

Remember way last winter? I went to an author event at a bookstore and got to meet Utah writer Jennifer A.  Nielsen. Of course, I had to buy her book.

I’ve got more books than time to read and just added that one to the pile. Then I attended the 2014 Professional Writers Series, sponsored by this Utah Children’s Writers blog, at the Pleasant Grove Library, where she was among a panel of MG writers. I didn’t buy another book, but decided to read the one I had. The False Prince is now among my favorites. 

Jennifer knows how to spin a tale. At the heart of her book is an interesting premise - install a false prince. In the fantasy world of Carthya, the king, queen, and heir prince to the throne have been killed, though the general public is not aware of this. Years before, the younger Prince Jaron went away and is assumed dead, though no body was found to confirm the death. A power hungry regent, Conner, devises to plan to search orphanages, find a boy who resembles the younger prince, and pass him off as the legitimate heir. Conner selects four boys and hopes one can be trained to pull off the deceit. Dang. Wish I had thought of that plot idea.

Nielsen does several things to makes this a great piece of writing. One is the way she delivers the backstory. Rather that just dump it out, she uses Conner to offer food to the hungry boys if they can list some specific facts about Carthyan history and government. Another thing she does well, is allow the reader to fill in gaps. One of the orphans asks what will happen to the boys that aren’t selected and is told that he knows the answer to that. Sometimes writers feel a need tell all. We need to trust our readers to come to their own correct conclusions. Nielsen employs an engaging main character. Sage, one of the orphans, is bold, defiant, mischievous, and cunning. He has swagger. He’s developed the street smarts to get by and doesn’t want to be a part of this ploy. Lastly, the author holds back a big surprise she reveals near the end. 

Nielsen said she had a kissing scene in the book and the publisher wanted it out in order to market it as an MG. At the time, she was anxious for anybody to pick it up so MG or YA, it didn’t matter to her. The story is now in production as a movie and at the Pleasant Grove event, she made an important point about audience levels. In books, we differentiate the two and most YA readers will not read down and rarely will MG audiences read up. In the film industry, they have audience quadrants which are kids, teenagers, 20-30 year olds, and everyone else. There is more crossover of the age groups than in written stories and thus wider audience appeal. She was pleased when one of the story consultants for the movie wanted a kissing scene exactly where she had previously put one.


Right here, in little old Utah, we continue to produce some great writers. Next event I’m at with Jennifer, I’ll have to purchase the rest of the Ascension trilogy. If I can wait that long.

(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)