Writing can be a difficult and intimately personal undertaking. We all have different approaches, different voices, and different methods for the way in which we weave words. There are lots of ways to write a book, and a problem I’m seeing a lot in writing classes, blogs, and instructional books is the expectation of imparting the One True Way to write.
Hello, happy writers! I have to admit, as we crash into a rather dreary and windy February, I’m torn between two states of mind: January lasted literally 800 years and How in the world is January already over???
January felt like a bit of a dud month to me. I didn’t get nearly the amount of writing and editing accomplished that I wanted to, and I had a hard time concentrate on writing in general. But! I did get a few things done! Sort of!
Read 8 books
Wrote a short story
Submitted that short story and entered it into contests
Began three classes
Have 100% so far in all of them
Worked on a massive amount of outlining
It isn’t as much as I wanted to get done, but it’s more than nothing!
— Christina ✍🏻 (@chuffwrites) February 1, 2018
One of the achievements I managed in January was to read 8 books! There are a lot of bloggers for which 8 books in a month is standard, if even a low number for them, but for me, it was a pretty big deal! I averaged finishing about two books a week, which made me feel really good. I found that I was generally in a more creative place and attitude the more consistently I read, so I’m hoping to keep up with this pace throughout the year. Fingers crossed!
Now, onto the reviews!
One of the writing classes I’m taking had a forum discussion where writers posted some of their most prominent worries when it comes to their novels, and one of the questions posted really struck me: the writer felt like their fantasy story was whisking from one location to the next too quickly. The reader, they worried, would get whiplash zooming around their fantasy map, seeing too many locations without any one of them leaving a deep impression.
Cue me quietly sweating onto my keyboard, because this is the realest concern, for any fantasy writer.
When you’re writing speculative fiction — or, really, any story that has a big, big world for the character to explore — there’s an instinct to show off that world. To move your character around a lot. Usually, it’s because the story requires it — characters have quests to go on, wars to fight, journeys to undertake, sacred mountains to hike up, haunted forests to fight through, scaly slobbery monsters in vast acid-filled lakes to bring fabled jeweled tea cups to — you get the idea.*
* Is this … not … a normal plot point for any novel?
But, sometimes, we writers can get carried away. It can be fun, and fruitful for your story, to take your characters on a dizzying roller coaster ride across your fantasy map. But how do you know when you’re taking your readers on too dizzying a ride? How do you keep that fantasy map from becoming one big, confusing, smeary blur in your readers’ heads?
Your character, especially in a quest or journey-based fantasy novel, shouldn’t just be walking through a sideways scrolling sequence of set dressings. Every location you showcase in your story should be there for a reason.
As far as I can tell (and I am by no means an expert on this), the trick is to make sure the locations have emotional context for the characters, and to root your settings in your story’s plot. Make your locations matter, in other words, to both your characters and to the story at large.
Let’s get a little deeper into what that means…
Rooting Your Locations In Your Story’s Plot
Let’s say your character is going on that epic journey where they hike up that sacred mountain to retrieve the mythical teacup, fight through that haunted forest to reach the acid lake, and then row across the poisonous waters to meet the sea creature whose ire can only be assuaged by the delivery of that bejeweled cup. You might have noticed something about each of those locations I listed…
They all have a clear purpose related to the story.
I have a question to pose this week, and it’s kind of a strange one: How important is it for us to remember the books that we read? Or, more specifically, how much of a book is it important for us to remember?
The main message, surely, is an important nugget to wedge into your gray matter after completing a novel. Once you close the covers of the Harry Potter novels, you should probably remember, if asked, that a main lesson was to defeat evil with love and not the other way around.
The main characters, too, should probably at least ring a bell. You might not remember their names, but hopefully you can recall something of what they wanted. Maybe you don’t remember that the main character of 1984 was named Winston (who could blame you, really), but you could probably, if pressed, recall that he was trying to rebel against an oppressive government, to escape the watchful eye of Big Brother.
The general idea of the setting is another aspect of a novel that you probably don’t want to blank on. If someone holds up a copy of Game of Thrones and asks you where it takes place, and you can’t remember if the story happens in an underwater submarine or in the magma-spitting center of a rumbling volcano in dire need of a lozenge*, that’s probably going to be embarrassing.
* it’s one of those two, right?
But, is it that big of a deal if you can’t recall the actual events of the book? If a year passes and you can’t really remember much about a book’s plot, does that mean you’ve failed as a reader — or that the book has failed as a written work? How detailed does the footprint have to be to count as an impression left on the reader? Are we talking bruise marks in the exact grooves of the tread, or can it just be a marking vaguely heel-shaped? Can you still count a book as one of your favorites if you can’t actually remember anything that happened in it?
I think so.
#BoutofBooks has all wrapped up! I can’t say I did amazingly at reading last week. My ambition to complete three books wasn’t quite fulfilled, though I did finish Wide Sargasso Sea and — er — start Salt to the Sea. That’s pretty good, right?
What can I say? My time was monopolized. I got caught up in reading Fire and Fury, and it always takes me a long time to read nonfiction (even gossipy, salacious, less-than-substantive nonfiction) and, in my defense, I also started reading this really amazing fic Dirt, from The Last of Us. If only GoodReads let you count 200,000 word fanfics towards your yearly reading goal, am I right?
Anyway, January is nearly half over (somehow. has anyone else accomplished exactly nothing so far this month? Just me? Oh, okay, cool. Just checking.) and it’s time to share some of my naively earnest goals for 2018.
My 5 Bookish Goals for 2018
A lot of importance is placed on the first lines of novels, and for a writer trying to get their work published, there is no shortage of pressure heaped onto the opening line.
There is a lot of pressure on a novelist to write a perfect first chapter. These words, these scenes, these ten or fifteen pages will be the first impression a prospective agent, editor, or reader will have of your novel, and you want to make them count.
So, the question begs — what makes a good first chapter? What should the beginning of my story accomplish?
The short answer: your first chapter needs to set the scene, introduce the main character, introduce the conflict, and lead to the trigger/inciting incident of your story.
What does all that entail? Let’s get into it.
I have been meaning to do the Writer’s Tag (plucked from PaperFury’s archive ages and ages ago) for a very long time, and now I am finally getting around to it! There just aren’t enough writing-related tags and surveys out there for us writing blogs, and this one has some great questions for getting to know each other. So, sharpen those pencils and crack open those blisteringly white empty Word documents and get to it!
For genres, I’m definitely a fantasy nut, but I have several more modern and less fantastical WIPs on my docket for 2018, including a murder mystery and a zombie virus! I definitely tend towards speculative, whether it be fantasy, horror, or science fiction, though.
For styles, I don’t think I’ve ever not written in Third Person POV (usually with a focal lens privy to the inner thoughts of one or another POV character). And it’s past tense all the way, baby! Usually my outlines are in the present tense, and I do like the immediacy that present tense provides, but I always find I skimp on the description and that my pacing is WAY too fast when I stay in present tense for very long.
As for my writing style … I tend to get lyrical and long-winded when I don’t know exactly what I’m trying to say, whereas when I have a firmer handle on the plot, my sentences tend to be shorter, more to-the-point, and sometimes even a little sparse on the details. Navigating between the two extremes when revising is a … special challenge.
Now, topics, that’s an interesting question! I answered a question on Twitter about recurring themes and images not long ago:
Forests, all the forests, every single kind of forest; an uncommon amount of fire; why have a sunny day when it could be cold and drizzling; and there’s always a mountain visible in the distance. always. unless they’re literally inside of one. https://t.co/7CIsAqp8UQ
— ❄️Christina ❄️ (@chuffwrites) November 29, 2017
No, but seriously, I have three — count them, THREE — WIPs in which the characters have either met, crashed into, or otherwise found themselves lost in a forest by the second or third chapter. What’s up with that??
Other topics that recur often in my writing: LGBT characters, self-deprecating humor (that often serves to lull the reader into a false sense of security before something AWFUL happens — is that mean?), fights against injustice, and characters that hate each other right until they become best friends for life.
In the last few weeks, there’s been a movement (or maybe a meme) for Millennials – at least those of us currently latched to our Twitter feeds, forced to watch the democratic institutions of our country implode 280 characters at a time – to binge watch Frasier on Netflix. It’s the new Thing, and I’ll admit I’ve been suckered in by the sudden influx of Frasier Discourse floating around. Though I’ve been lately falling asleep to an episode or so of Ken Burns The Roosevelt’s documentary, last night I watched two or three episodes of Frasier instead.
I had forgotten what a funny, smartly written show it was, or how overtly dramatic Frasier Crane was over every single mild upset life threw his way. I get it, twitter peeps. Frasier Crane is literally all of us. We just didn’t know it at the time.
Frasier, for those of us not well versed in their late 80’s, early 90’s sitcom lore, was a spin-off of Cheers – another binge-worthy show now available on Netflix. (Bring back Roseanne, Netflix, or I swear…). Cheers took place in a bar in Boston, where Frasier Crane and his (rather intense) wife Lilith were frequent secondary characters. To account for the existence of the spin-off, which relocated Frasier across the continental United States in his home town of Seattle, hosting a pop psychology radio show and begrudgingly allowing his father and a live-in care worker to live with him in his lavish, eclectic apartment, conveniently in the eye of the space needle, it was told to us in the Pilot that Frasier had divorced Lilith and moved back home for a new chapter of his life. Because of this unexpected turn in the path, he had to leave his son behind, his practice, and everything he thought he had built in Boston.
Something struck me towards the end of the Pilot episode. During his radio show, where he gives advice to call-in patients, Frasier takes a call from someone who says she has just broken up with her boyfriend of eight years and cannot stop crying. Is she mourning the relationship, she asks? Frasier explains that no, she isn’t. She is mourning the life she had thought she had planned for herself, but which has now been completely reshuffled.
I thought that was such a poignant and insightful observation – that sometimes the plans we make fall apart, and not only do we have to adjust to this new reality, but we have to give ourselves the time and the space to mourn the story we had written in our heads of The Way Things Are Going To Be, and which now seems dashed, foiled, scrubbed out.
Happy Monday, happy writers! This week, we’re going to discuss one of the most dreaded topics for any writer day-dreaming about publication: the query.
Is your stomach getting queasy just thinking about it? I know mine is…
What is a query? A query is the sales pitch in which you try to condense 300 pages of delicious novel-ly goodness into two or three paragraphs that are polished and perfect and pithy enough to convince a complete stranger to read your work. It’s the letter you write to your potential literary agent, or editor, or publisher, to sell your story to them.
Is there anything more stressful in the world? I mean, probably dangling over a tank of snapping and slobbering sharks on a lengthening and fraying rope … but even then, I’d have to say, the experiences aren’t dissimilar.
So, let’s go into it. How do you write a query that isn’t a total mess??