If you wish to immerse your readers into your story, and take them to new and exciting places, then it becomes important to “set the scene”. Our Monday TalkWrite group discussed some strategies and techniques for doing this, along with how much is to much?
For stories set in the contemporary world:
Research your setting: visit it if possible, otherwise, there are plenty of resources available on the internet, both static and video. Take note of a few of the more striking features. Even if these are not included in the story, they will help you get a better feel of the scenery and help guide your character’s actions.
For example: if I were setting a scene in a Market place in Madagascar (picture above from Pixabay), I might take note of the colourful clothing and mixture of fashions, the wooden stalls, the general bustle and noise, and the children and livestock running around. I might also take note of a few of the more unusual goods for sale (ie: sandals made out of old car tyres – not pictured here).
Consider the scene from your point-of-view character’s perspective: is the character entering the above scene a local, or an outsider? One would view the scene a lot differently from the other! Consider their character traits too: would they find the crowds stifling – or exhilarating? And their physical traits: are they tall, short? Each would view the world differently. Also their goals: are they sight-seeing, or seeking to make a purchase? Use this to determine how much information to portray to the reader.
Have your character interact with the scenery: instead of standing there staring, incorporate the character into the scene: dodging through the crowd, ducking beneath a hanging awning, stepping over a sleeping dog. How are the vendors reacting towards them? Do they know the character personally? Or will they view them as an outsider?
Don’t forget the other senses! Don’t just rely on visual descriptions, think of how the place smells, the sounds that the character might hear, how the ground feels beneath their feet. Use only the senses that help paint the most vivid mental image.
Don’t get bogged down by description: a few sentences can paint the scene, but several paragraphs will bring the story to a grinding halt. Pick a few key features to highlight, and let the reader imagine the rest.
For stories set in a fantastical world:
Fantastical worlds can vary from relatively similar to our own, to widely different. If your world has some rather dramatic geographical differences, then you may find a bit more description is required. To properly get a grasp on your world, write out a detailed description of the setting – this is for your reference. You might like to set a timer, and free-write for five minutes, describing the scene in as much detail as you can manage. Once you have done that, select the key features that are the most important to your point-of-view character.
Flora and fauna: creating new species is a great deal of fun, as is revealing them to the reader. If your POV character is familiar with the flora and fauna, I recommend teasing the reader with snippets of description. In Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives series, there is a creature called an “axehound“. This animal is never directly described, but snippets of detail about its six limbs and antennae inform the reader that this is no canine. If your character is meeting a monster for the first time, describe its most impressive feature first – as that will likely be the first thing the character notices.
How much Description is too much?
The worst thing you can do when trying to portray a scene in the reader’s mind is to bore them with details. Less, truly, is more.
Be aware of:
- too many adjectives
- over-describing a specific item or feature
- this says to the reader “this is important” and may set up a promise that requires pay-off at the end.
- can be used if the item or feature WILL be important later in the story.
- can also be used as a “red herring” to veil another item or feature that you are foreshadowing.
- what is important to your character: for example: a painter will view the scene differently from a soldier.
Exercise: Next time you travel somewhere different: whether it be another country, a trip to the countryside, or even a cafe, note down everything you see, smell, hear, and feel (taste too, if you’re feeling adventurous). Underline, or highlight, what you feel are the most interesting features. Then consider one of your characters and ask yourself, “how would they view this scene? What is the first thing they would notice?”
Anyone who reads fiction regularly will realize that there is an established structure to the plot narrative. You may have heard of the three-act structure, and the seven-act structure, but overall these are both based on the some fundamentals: one is just longer!
This is, of course, not the only way you can structure your novel, and there have been some very creative variations on the theme, but when starting out as an author and learning the art, having a structure can help keep the plot on track.
The traditional three-act divides the story into three parts:
First Act (the Set-up):
This first act should establish:
- Who: introduces the main character
- Where: establishes the world/setting, and what is the neutral (ie: “normal”) for the character.
- Inciting Incident: this is the event that causes a disruption from the character’s normal life and indicates that life may not be the same again.
- For example: in Harry Potter, the inciting incident is Hagrid’s arrival, announcing that Harry is a wizard
- At this point, if the character were to ignore the inciting incident, their life would remain in the “normal” and there would be no story.
- What the inciting incident is for your story will depend on the genre of the story: For a mystery, it could be the finding of a body, or the client approaching the protagonist with the case. For a romance, it could be the first time that she sees him and decides that he is The One. It can be dramatic, or subtle, but ultimately will change the protagonist’s life and set it on a different course.
- First Turning Point: sometimes known as the “point of no return”, this is where the protagonist accepts the inciting incident, which will alter their life irrevocably. At this point, they cannot return to the period of normalcy without suffering in some way (socially, physically, emotionally). It also sets up the situation that needs to be resolved by the conclusion of the story. It makes the end of the First Act.
- For Harry, this is when he first enters Hogwarts.
How long the first act should be is determined by the length of the novel and the genre. Crime thrillers are quite likely to begin with the inciting incident, whereas a literary or fantasy novel may spend more time in setting the scene. Some authors may choose to have the character reject the incident, or may make it more difficult for the protagonist to accept it – think of how many times the Dursleys foiled Harry’s attempts to get his invitation. But generally speaking it should not be drawn out too long, lest the reader become frustrated and set the book aside.
Second Act (Rising Action):
The second act is the longest act, comprising of approximately half the manuscript.
in the second act:
- Midpoint: The protagonist attempts to deal with the situation, but fails and/or makes matters worse, because they do not, yet, have the skills or knowledge to deal with the situation.
- The protagonist must attempt to address the skills that will help them succeed. In Harry’s case, he’s learning magic, and making allies. In a romance, the protagonist may be fighting against self-doubt and their own insecurities. In a mystery, the inspector is collecting evidence and studying the clues that will help them solve the case.
- Do not make things too easy for your character. When they are facing an obstacle, even success should have ongoing, possibly worse, consequence. Always think, will my character succeed? “Yes, BUT…” (there’s another problem) or “No, AND…” (things get worse).
- Tension should keep rising. Use subplots and character relationships to help hold up a saggy middle.
- Second Turning Point: The tension is at its highest level, and the protagonist must make a decision that will – whether they win or lose – change their life forever. It is similar to the First Turning Point, except the cost for failure is much higher.
Third Act (Resolution):
This is the final quarter-or-so of your book, and the point in which you want to keep the reader fully hooked ad leave them satisfied.
- Climax: everything that protagonist has learned and all the obstacles they have faced can help her deal with the main source of conflict.
- Twists: any sudden reveals or twists to the plot should be “surprising but inevitable”. As a dedicated reader, I’ve found that if I spot a twist early in the book and it culminates to be the actual, I feel cheated, but if I unravel it 2-3 pages before it is revealed, then I feel satisfied (and clever). You do not want to leave the reader thinking, “Huh? How did that happen?” but “Of course! Why didn’t I notice that?”
- Character Development: your character now should no longer be the same person they were at the start; the events of the story have helped reshape them.
- Denouement: Untangling the more knotted parts of the story, and revealing (some of) the secrets and tying up (some of) the loose ends. If your story is in a series, you should always leave a few questions unanswered for the reader. Even if it’s not part of a series, it’s always fun to leave some of the “what comes next” to the reader’s imagination.
The three-act structure is frequently used in screenplays and theater. Next time you are watching a movie, see if you can identify the:
- Inciting Incident
- First Turning Point
- Second Turning Point
Where do writers get their ideas? We discussed the theme at our first Monday evening TalkWrite group for 2018.
Inspiration can come from the world around you:
- Locations: a creepy house; an idyllic location can inspire thoughts such as “what happened there?” or “what could happen there?”
- ie: “What if there was a body?”
- Experiences: for a lot of writers, their day-to-day lives may influence the stories they want to write. It might be funny anecdotes around your work, or you might visit a place or have some sort of experience that you wish to share – either through fiction or as a memoir.
- ie: what sort of interesting/weird things could happen at a science fiction convention?
- Something that makes you wonder:
- companies with interesting names
- ie, Merlin’s Couriers (what do they deliver?)
- ie, car advertisement, costs $19,999 plus ORC (What if your new car actually came with an orc?)
- companies with interesting names
- Newspaper articles: often they only tell you the outcome of an event – so what caused it? Why would someone act in such a way?
- Also Newspaper headlines: sometimes these sound more interesting than the actual story proves to be. So, write the more interesting one!
- Conversations: either overheard, or that you have participated in.
- Historic events/people: if you have a passion for a particular period or figure from history, that works as a great starting point for a story and fictionalised stories around real people are quite popular.
- Dreams: keep a notebook beside your bed, and remember, that’s where Stephenie Meyer found Edward.
- Songs: either the lyrics or the general theme of a song can prove inspiration to writing, just beware of breaching copyright by following or quoting the lyrics too closely.
Write the story you would enjoy reading
If you’re really stuck on what to write, sit down and make a list of the things that you enjoy the most in the books you’re reading and the movies you watch. Chances are, you’ll be able to find a shape of a fresh, new story within them. A prime example of this is Eragon by Christopher Paolini. It has elements of Tolkien, Star Wars, and, whilst being somewhat generic, became phenomenally popular and was actually a really good read (although I confess, I never finished the series). Do you enjoy cozy murder mysteries and like to knit? Well, why not combine the two? (This is a surprisingly populated genre).
Twists on Familiar Stories/Ideas
- Retell a fairy tale with a new setting, time period or from a different character’s perspective.
- Write the story of a side character in an out-of-copyright classic novel (ie: Captain Hook).
- Take a fairly standard/cliched plot and twist or parody it
- ie: the standard “quest for the McGuffin” narrative of some fantasy novels
- Social or political commentary can also be used to create a powerful fantasy novel, a heart-breaking romance, a tense thriller, or a black comedy, depending on your personal genre tastes.
Many stories begin with a “What If?”
- What if cats really ruled the world?
- What if my neighbour began worshipping me as a god?
- What if aliens have been amongst us all this time?
Writing Prompts and Word Lists
There are various resources on the internet for finding inspiration. These may work for some authors – particularly those who just wish to ignite their writing fire.
- Images: they do say a picture paints a thousand words. Spend some time on pinterest looking up your favourite themes (or just “Story ideas”), but I’d recommend setting a timer. Find a picture that inspires you and see what questions you can create around it that might be turned into a story.
- Writing Prompts: these are generally a sentence or two about a situation ending with a few questions. Great for getting inspired to write a short story – or possibly taking it all the way to a novel!
- Word Lists: We did an exercise in a writing class where we were given three words (which included “rickshaw” and “encyclopedia”) and asked to write a short story around them. It was fun – and everyone’s story was completely different! Random word lists can be found on the Internet.
- There are also numerous dice and card decks available to make you think and create.
- Rory’s Story Cubes
- The Reckless Deck: to create spec-fic mash-ups
- The Storymatic: Pick up a card and watch the story unfold before your eyes!
- Dixit: Not specifically for writing inspiration, but has plenty of strange and beautiful illustrations.
- Once Upon a Time: Another game that can be used for inspiration, they even have a book available with how to use it to write your own fairytales.
Want to try and write a story based on prompts? Find below a picture (from Pixabay and a Creative Common) and a list of random words I’ve generated using an online generator.
Cemetery, cave, stem, compartment, suntan, candle, solid, rib, courage, constitution
If you write a story based on one, or both, let us know in the comments below!
Or if you have other ways of “finding your story”, we’d love to hear it.
There is a strong chance that your character will have a life before their story starts. She* will have hobbies, passions, and fill a specific role, or niche, in society. In all likelihood, she will have an occupation, or some way in which she spends her regular, mundane, pre-story day. Under the typical narrative structure, the plot will begin with her living that normal** life, before the occurrence of the inciting incident that will set her on her journey through the plot.
There are some factors to take into consideration when deciding how your character would spend her pre-story days:
1. Intended Audience/Genre
Readers wish to identify with the characters, and although we may read diversely, there is a general trend to write characters that bear some similarity to their readers. This is especially prevalent in children and young adult literature – how many children’s books can you name where the protagonist is an adult?
Therefore, when writing for children, your characters will likely be children themselves. A lot of children’s books are set in school (ie: Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Captain Underpants) and even the fantastical ones generally have them learning their skills from a mentor or tutor (ie: Ranger’s Apprentice, Spirit Animals).
Obviously genre will also determine the role your character plays in society. In science fiction, engineers and linguists might be more prevalent than retail clerks or telephone operators. In fantasy, wizards and knights may prevail over accountants and IT consultants. Of course, it’s also fun to break from tradition and do something fresh and original too (just look at Terry Pratchett).
2. Write What You Know
There is, I suspect, a reason why many characters in adult fiction work in bookstores, are authors, journalists, editors or otherwise feature somewhere in the publishing industry; it requires less research for the author if their protagonist’s occupation is something intrinsically familiar to them. Here’s where extra-curriculum study is useful, and a previously unused degree could come in handy.
Whilst there’s absolutely nothing wrong with giving your character an occupation you are entirely unfamiliar with, bear in mind that you should engage in indepth research, because if you put in inaccurate facts, someone will know – and reviewers are not kind. You can, perhaps, get away with a little more improvisation in fantasy (especially if your character is a wizard) or space opera. Still, tread wary.
3. What does your story need?
This is probably the most important one to consider. Your character will face many trials throughout the plot and may require specialist skills to face them. Whilst a protagonist can never be a Jack-of-all-trades, they should have at least one core level of expertise that can justify them being the main character.
Think about what your story needs: does your main character need to hack computers? Will they be called upon to heal another character? Will strenuous physical activity be required? This doesn’t need to relate specifically to the character’s occupation, she could have attended a first aid course for work. Think creatively too: need someone with physical agility or endurance? Maybe she could be a soccer player or a cheerleader.
In a fantastical setting, she may be required to ride horses, hunt or forage for food, or survive in a hostile environment. Giving her a rural background may make this easier, but there is a certain charm in her being of noble blood, and thus forced into a situation where she is entirely out of her depth.
4. Break the stereotypes
Alternately, you can approach this from the exact opposite direction. Who would be the least expected to face the challenges of the plot? After all, we’ve had a perky cheerleader that fights supernatural monsters, and there are numerous middle-aged women (with no police training) who regularly solve mysteries. So, who’s to say that an accountant cannot save the world from the alien invasion? Or an elderly lady should not fall in love with a rock star?
No-one. So if you want to write it, write it!
5. Who will the plot impact the most?
There are some people that are more likely to be in a direct line of fire from the threat you’re about to unleash. Let’s say, for example, you want to write a story about monsters creeping into the world, possibly through the sewage system. Who is likely to notice this first? Home owners, perhaps, who will call in a plumber to investigate the situation. Supernatural events occurring after dark? What sort of people are likely to be out in the wee small hours? Street sweepers, criminals, someone sneaking home after an illicit tryst. A ‘flu virus has mutated and will begin the next pandemic? A doctor or nurse, or perhaps a laboratory technician or intern, could be the first to make the connection.
6. Give your character a talent or passion
Giving your character hobbies, talents, or interests, or something they are passionate about, all help the reader to connect with your character. These may not necessarily have a powerful impact on the plot, but they will more help cement the character as a “real” person. They can also be used to help the plot in small but subtle ways, both to the character’s benefit or to their downfall.
However, be wary of making your character’s passion so powerful that it distracts from the plot. If she must examine and identify every flower that she comes across, the reader’s interest may begin to wander. She need only identify the ones which can be used later in the story (ie: working out who had the means to poison the bishop), or a couple of others as “red herrings”.
Hopefully these suggestions have given you a goodly basis on where your character may begin. In the next few weeks we will look into personality, family, and the way your character relates to people around them.
If you have any suggestions or feedback for this blog, please let us know in the comments below.
~ * ~
* or he, or they, or whatever pronoun you have selected for your protagonist.
** even novels set in alternate, or dystopic, worlds tend to start with the character in a relative status quo-type situation. It may not be “normal” to us – but it is normal to them.
Characters are one of the defining features that make a novel memorable, and help it stand out from others in the same genre.
As writers, we need to capture the reader’s attention, engage their emotions, and hook them into the tale. We need to create a protagonist that one can emphasize with, or at the very least, feel a connection to.
Do they need to be likeable? No!
Do they need to feel real? Yes!
We will work our way through a series of blog posts on how one can create a character, flesh them out, and bring them to life on the page. One important thing to note though, is the Iceberg Principal. Essentially, whilst you – as the writer – needs to know as much about the character as you feasibly can, the reader only needs to see what is relevant to the story – the tip of the iceberg.
We will begin with names. Now, you may like to leave the naming of your character until you know them a little better, in which case, refer back to this post at a later date, but I think we can all agree that, in most stories*, names are important. And names are more than just “something to call your character by”.
Names can also indicate:
- Social status
There are numerous things to consider when choosing names for your characters, and these will vary according to genre. For a historical novel, for example, you will wish to choose names relevant or typical to that period, a modern name or non-traditional spelling will really stand out. Also, many readers will make a subconscious connection between a name and personality; this can be fun to play with – for example, we have Bill the vampire in the Sookie Stackhouse series – but certain names will generally have specific connotations. This may, of course, vary depending on who is reading the book, and is culture dependent.
There are numerous resources for names, here are a few:
- baby name books: These generally contain the name’s origin and meaning, and thus can be used to subtly reference the character’s personality.
- baby name websites: as above, only digital.
- people you know, or names you overhear. Carry a notebook, note them down. (Be wary of using the names of friends or family though, as they may grow suspicious of your character’s origin).
- the phone book: great for surnames!
- name generator websites: Google it, there are hundreds!
If you are wanting non-traditional names, say for example you are writing speculative fiction, or for non-human characters, then you can have some fun creating your own names:
- portmanteaus are always fun: Sunstar, Rainflower, Goldenleaf.
- look into nature: plants, animals, and minerals often have appealing names that can say a lot about a character (Hemlock for example, is not likely to be someone cute and cuddly).
- colours: ie: Cerulean, Cyan, Magenta, Scarlet, Sable.
- mythology and folklore
- combine together pleasantly sounding syllables (I’d recommend no more than 3 syllables).
Make sure you say your character’s name out loud, to make sure that it doesn’t clash with the character’s intended personality (Annaki, for example, is likely to cause chaos). If you are writing a multi-racial specfic adventure, you will find it extremely helpful to base each different race’s naming patterns on the same distinct origin. That way the reader will be able to immediately determine if they’re a dwarf, an elf, or a specific alien species. Consistency is important.
Some things to look out for:
- character names all beginning with the same letter: this isn’t too confusing but can look lazy.
- similar sounding names: you probably don’t want a Raina and a Riana in your story. Either you or the reader will get the two confused!
- characters with the same name: this is fairly common in real life, but in stories it’s best avoided to prevent confusion.
- unpronounceable or long, complex names. For both the reader’s sake and yours – since you will probably mis-spell them at least once – I’d recommend keeping these to a minimum, or for peripheral characters.
- avoid subconsciously using the name of someone famous or infamous, or someone else’s character. Google it first!
It can be very useful to create lists of names, especially if you are writing in a world with specific naming technique (ie: all from the same cultural origin), so when you need to give the name of a peripheral character you can refer to the list, rather than spend 20 minutes trying to find something appropriate, which will stall your writing.
* there are always exceptions to the rule: in a first-person narrative one can fairly easily avoid ever naming the main protagonist, and you are unlikely to use them in a second-person narrative, and there are of course several famous authors that have never given their characters a unique moniker (ie: The Road by Cormac McCarthy). But you’ll generally find it easier if you have something to call your characters, trust me.
The creative perspective
As I embark on this fourth NaNo journey, I’ve found myself dwelling on how, as a writer, my craft and the experience of writing have changed since those early days. I still find it fun, but over the years I’ve become more introspective about the way I work. You’ll find that too.
That first journey saw me throw myself into a lifelong dream. The desire to simply write that novel motivating me to just write, and write, and write. Which is just what NaNo is about. But along the journey, I’ve realised that to complete my manuscripts, I need to have a direction. Some signposts along the way. Of course that won’t be the same for everybody.
As a result, you find yourself considering what type of writer you are.
Plotter or pantser?
For anyone new to writing, you’ll find there appear to be three general kinds of writer.
1) The Plotter – somebody who meticulously plans their entire project, so that when NaNo starts they have an outline, their structure, know their plot, their characters and what their end goal is.
2) The Pantser – somebody who quite literally writes by the seat of their pants. No real direction, just the ability to follow the plot and characters wherever they may lead.
3) The Hybrid – somebody who combines both plotting and panting to their novel-writing journey.
When embarking on NaNo, it’s worth considering what kind of writer you are.
As I mentioned before, I’ve always been a pantser. Literally writing by the seat of my pants. Letting the characters develop the stories as I go. To the extent that I’d find my characters talking to me (I know, you think I’m mad). Driving in the car, carrying out my own interviews with them to learn who they were, how they’d react to things, who they’d vote for the next American president! All things that gave me an insight into the people I was creating, and the direction my story was taking.
However, this year, I’ve decided to embark on the NaNo journey with a plan. A result of which has seen me methodically planned my book from beginning to end. I’ve researched my backstory, and all of the key points throughout the novel and have reams of notes as a result. I’ve filled out character worksheets, setting worksheets, created picture boards, and even organised a road trip to Mackenzie which is the setting for the vast part of my story.
This is not because I’ve decided that pantsing is wrong, but because I’m open to new ways of doing this.
What type are you? It’s well worth considering before you embark on your NaNo journey. If you’re new to NaNo. Chris Baty’s No Plot, No Problem is an awesome read, giving some insight into what the National Novel Writing Month is. As well as giving you some insights into how to go about it (from well-learned experience).
If you’re not a NaNo, but want to look at ways of plotting and planning, then I thoroughly recommend the following books for helping with writing craft in so far as structuring and planning your novel:
1) Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need – a comprehensive, easy to read guide to structuring your story.
2) Michael Hauge’s
3) Jack M Bickman’sScene & Structure (Elements of Fiction Writing)
I’ve found these three books invaluable in helping me plan for NaNo, and perhaps because I want to take my writing to the next level, I’ve enjoyed investing in craft books that have opened my eyes to the whole concept of plotting and planning for my writing journey.
Another aspect of the planning that I’ve come to think of as vital for writing development is surrounding yourself with likeminded people.
Use the Writing Community
Writing is a solitary activity, and can be really lonely. Particularly when you hit the wall often called writers block, or self-doubt. During NaNo, the goal is to hit that 50,000 word target. A goal that is completely achievable. However, it is inevitable that during NaNo, you’ll have peaks and troughs. Some days, you’ll fly. Others you’ll wonder just what on earth you are doing. By surrounding yourself with people with that same objective, you give yourself not only a sounding board, but also a support network. It can become competitive. I love a challenge, and going to our Tuesday ‘Night Owls’ write in, I find myself challenging myself to keep up with some of the more prolific writers (some of whom have achieved 160,000 words during NaNo in the past – yikes!).
So here’s some suggestions.
Visit the NaNoWriMo website:
Find out who your Municipal Liaison is ( http://nanowrimo.org/regions)
Find out where write-ins are planned with other writers in your local community – these can offer invaluable support, and potentially create lifelong friendships.
Join NaNo to make the most of the webinar’s and support it offers during November.
Visit your Local Library:
Is there any information on local groups?
Do they have activities or workshops for writers?
Local writing organisations:
In our case, we’re lucky to have a vibrant community of writers locally. The Christchurch Writers Guild ( https://chchwriters.org ), New Zealand Society of Authors ( http://authors.org.nz/about/branches/canterbury/ ), and the Romance Writers of New Zealand ( http://www.romancewriters.co.nz/about/regional-meetings/ ). The latter of which have local chapters who organise workshops, monthly meetings, and local write ins. Investigate if there is anything like that near you.
This may all seem a little much for the writer who’s new to this, but these lessons have been learned over four years. And if I’m completely honest, I’ll undoubtedly learn more lessons this year.
Furthermore, there are two more things to remember during NaNo:
The first: Switch off that inner-critic. That little niggle of self-doubt is the worst thing for creativity. He/ she will whisper in your ear as you write, telling you you’re taking the wrong direction, that your writing is crap, that this is a waste of time. He’s a pain in the ass, and needs to be told that. My first year I let him really get at me. Kept re-reading what I’d written, questioning whether I was made for the whole writing thing. So the second year, I made a poster. “Inner-critic you’re banned from my study for a month.”
Childish perhaps, but psychologically, I refused to listen to anything the rotten demon. He had no part in my NaNo journey, or any writing journey from that day on.
The second: is to enjoy. Have fun. Creativity and writing are a truly exciting opportunity to explore something that few of us ever do. People will poo-poo you, “Gah, why would you write? There’s no money in it? Why waste the time?”
If it’s something you truly want to do – then do it. Enjoy it. Lose yourself in your own fantasy world. Whether it be crime, mystery, fantasy, a children’s story or a romance, NaNo is the one time of the year you can say “Okay, I’m gonna do this.”
Whether you have a PC, or a rudimentary paper and pen. Let your imagination run wild for the month. You never know where it might take you.
I hope this helps, and that you enjoy your NaNo journey.
Emma Lowe moved to North Canterbury from Dunedin three years ago. She promptly joined the CWG and was overwhelmed to discover not only a network of writers, but a group of people who have become close personal friends. She has been focusing on her writing ever since (at least when she’s not juggling kids and the family business). She predominantly writes romance, and is also a member of Romance Writers of New Zealand, amongst other writing organisations.
Pantsers write “by the seat of their pants”, not following a set structure but letting the story take them on a wild, sometimes chaotic, journey. It is also known as “Discovery Writing”.
Plotters plan out the novel in advance, sometimes in meticulous detail, setting out the story’s structure and following it from beginning to end.
Which of the two are you? Is one way better than another? While I would never dictate how anyone should write, it is true that each method has its pros and its cons, and also that many writers tend to fit somewhere between the two.
Here are some tips and tricks our members shared during our Monday night discussion:
- It helps to know where the story begins, and have some idea of how it will end.
- Consider your plot points to be “signposts” designed to move the plot in the right direction.
- Be flexible: if characters, or the plot, behaves in an unexpected manner, be prepared to move these signposts.
- Use the first draft of your discovery written novel to determine the structure of the second draft.
- Many writers (especially those that are also dedicated readers) will find themselves subconsciously following the traditional story structure.
What are you? A plotter? A Pantser? Or a hybrid?
Do you have any tips and tricks of your own?
Share them with us on Twitter: @chchwriters or comment here!
We are also happy to take suggestions for our Monthly themes!
What is a blurb?
A blurb is a brief description of your story, a text-based advertisement to attract a future reader. It either appears on the back cover or inside the front cover on a printed book, or is the second piece of information you will find on a website (after the cover and the title).
Why is it important?
Because, after the potential reader has admired your cover and clever title, they want to know what the book is about. If your blurb does not entice them, then they’re going to put it back on the shelf, or move on to the next option.
How can I write a compelling blurb?
- Keep it short, generally between 100-150 characters.
- Write in third person, present tense (generally, however, exceptions may apply).
- Be true to your genre and use words that cater to your audience. ie: If you are writing a romance, your blurb shouldn’t make it sound like a thriller.
- Your first sentence has to hook the reader, most easily done by getting them interested in the character or intrigued by the setting.
- Once the attention has been gained, it must be maintained. One easy way to do this is by following the basic formula below:
A. the main character (generally including one defining feature).
Here are some examples randomly selected from my book case.
- Nine-year old Bruno has a lot of things on his mind.
- When the 5,000-year-old djinni Bartimaeus is summoned by Nathaniel, a young magician’s apprentice…
- Pi Patel, a God-loving boy and the son of a zookeeper has a fervent love of stories…
OR: the setting
- London is on the move again.
- Angelfield House stands abandoned and forgotten.
- In a ruined and hostile landscape, in a future few have been unlucky enough to survive…
With the character, you are seeking a way to connect with the reader, establishing the main protagonist as someone they wish to learn more about, and with the setting you are establishing a mystery: ie: is London literally moving? (yes, yes it is). You are endeavouring to engage with the reader and hook them in.
Tip: When trying to decide whether to focus on character or setting, ask yourself: which is more interesting? If unsure, write both and ask your friends/writing buddies/random strangers which they prefer.
Follow up with:
B. The problem
What goes wrong?
Tip: This is likely to be connected to the inciting incident of your story: it is the situation that takes your character from their previously predictable and reliable life and plunges them into the plot.
- Alas, the ship sinks – and Pi finds himself in a lifeboat, his only companions a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra and a 450-pound Bengal tiger.
And connect this with your protagonist and the actions he (or she) will have to take:
- Soon the tiger has dispatched all but Pi. Can Pi and the tiger find their way to land?
You must end with mystery – don’t spoil the end!
Tip: Although many blurbs do end with a question, if the answer is simply “yes” then your blurb may have more power if, instead, the reader is made aware of the cost to the protagonist should they fail, or the price they will have to pay to succeed.
C. The Mood
Finally, many blurbs choose to conclude with a final paragraph conveying the Mood and indicating the intended genre or audience. Here, if you have not previously, the setting can be mentioned.
- Set in a modern-day London controlled by magicians, this hilarious, electrifying thriller will enthral readers of all ages.
Tip: Whilst it may seem logical (and is perfectly permissible) to start with the mood, you do run the risk of the reader going “oh, it’s a thriller, I don’t read thrillers” and proceed no further. Also, some readers may read the first sentence and the final paragraph before determining whether to read the middle.
What about Non-fiction?
Non-fiction blurbs are very diverse, depending on the genre.
- Memoirs and biographies can be written in much the same way as fiction blurbs.
- Manuals or guides for specialised topics can begin with:
- the author and their credentials (third person, present tense).
- with a series of questions (second person).
- by informing you (the reader) why you might like this book (second person).
Important things to note about writing non-fiction blurbs:
- Reach out to your intended audience and make your premise clear.
- Demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about (list credentials/give an example).
- Include testimonials if you have them. Of not, it won’t hurt to get some!
Tip: If you can make an outrageous, but substantiated claim, then that is a great way to attract the reader’s attention. However, never lie or mislead your reader!
I intend to publish traditionally; do I still need a blurb?
Whilst it is true that, if traditionally published through a reputable publishing house, it is unlikely you will be writing your own blurb, first you have to get that publishing contract! Therefore, you still need a brief and enticing advertisement for your book.
Tip: Read a lot of blurbs before writing your own! Pick some randomly from your bookshelf or the library (or browse Amazon) and look at the structure. Try to determine what makes you pick them up or put them back. Specifically target books written in the same genre as yours: what do they have in common with each other, what are the differences? Are some more compelling than others?
Also, TEST your blurb, write several attempts, share them on a writers’ forum or with your friends, get feedback and make alterations accordingly.
Favourite first (or last) sentence in a blurb?
Share them with us on Twitter: @chchwriters or comment here!
We are also happy to take suggestions for our Monthly themes!
Why is research important?
- Research adds authenticity:
- Details are important: Maybe not all of your readers will notice, but someone, somewhere will, and they may be ruthless!
- To avoid making embarrassing mistakes
- Research can lead to new ideas, or help your story take flight in an unexpected direction.
- Research is fun!
When is research important?
Research is extremely important in historic novels, as you do not want to incorporate anachronisms, and if your contemporary novel is set in a real-world location, then you should familiarise yourself with its general layout and major landmarks.
It is especially important to undertake research if you are writing about cultures (ie: ethnicity, religion, social economic, etc) that you are unfamiliar with, for if you make a mistake, it could highly offend someone – and in this day of social media, readers can be ruthless.
In fantasy and (some) science fiction, you have an element of flexibility*, and readers are generally happy to suspend their disbelief a certain amount, but the most convincing stories are those in which the fiction is grounded, at least somewhat, in fact. For example, a common error in fantasy novels, is to use horses like all-purpose vehicles. In science fiction, especially hard science fiction, a solid grounding in science is required.
In dystopic or post-apocalyptic novels, adding in the remains of well-known landmarks can really add extra impact (ie: the original “Planet of the Apes”)
(* but your setting still needs to follow, and remain consistent to, a set structure of rules.)
How much research should I do?
Research can be a slippery slope. The more you learn, the more interesting it can become and you must figure out how much of it to keep. Libbie Hawker (author of “Take Off Your Pants!”) recommends writing first, then researching to fill in the gaps. This means that you will only be researching that which is relevant to the plot. But what if your topic is so fascinating that you just can’t stop researching it? And you just want to learn more? Well, that’s fine too, however…
How much of what I discover should I include in my story?
The iceberg theory applies here too. The answer is: as much as is necessary to the plot and the characters. No more. Sure, you may have learned a plethora of fascinating facts, but if they’re not advancing or enhancing the story, then you shouldn’t share them with your readers. Sorry. If it’s that fascinating, then add an appendix!
Anything additional that you learn will remain in your subconscious, and may reveal itself later, in another story or idea. So nothing learned is truly wasted.
There is also the risk that you may become so hung-up in your research that it becomes a form of procrastination – there can be a fine line between too much and not enough.
How do I go about researching my novel?
- Google and Wikipedia are really good for quick authenticity checks and basic details. However, be aware that not everything you read on the internet is true!
- Google Earth is a great resource for those who set their stories in real world places that they’ve never visited. Need to plot a car chase through Copenhagen? Well, street view will help.
- Visit the location: Road trip time! Take photographs and notes. Observe using all five senses, what scents do you notice? What sounds do you hear? All such details add to the authenticity of your settings. Just remember not to overdo it!
- Talk to people: your friends, family – people are generally happy to share their knowledge. This is also useful if you want to find out how it feels to, say, have a dislocated shoulder, if you’ve never done it yourself, you probably know someone who has. If you don’t know anyone personally, you can take it to Facebook or various discussion forums (such as the NaNoWriMo Reference Desk).
- Be Aware: if you are researching a controversial or opinion-based topic, speaking to just one expert can lead to bias. Seek to research as broadly as possible, then use what you learn to determine how your character thinks/behaves.
- the library: still relevant.
- YouTube: planning a fight scene but you’ve never wielded a sword in your life? Well, you can probably find footage of someone who has.
- Experts: Historians, scientists, educators, cultural leaders, police detectives, the Citizens Advice Bureau. Organise an interview, and write out a list of questions. As above, seeking from multiple sources can reduce bias.
- Personal Experience: Your character needs to ride a horse? Well, ride a horse! Volunteer your services. Take pottery classes. Try archery. Join the SCA… Not only can physically experiencing the activity yourself truly enhance the story, it could also lead to a new hobby or passion.
Research is important to maintain the authenticity of your tale and keep the reader engaged.
What are some of the weirdest things you’ve ever researched?
Share them with us on Twitter: @chchwriters or comment here!
We are also happy to take suggestions for our Monthly themes!
For our Guild Monthly gatherings (held the second Monday of each month), we now have a set discussion topic to begin the evening with. March’s topic was a blight experienced by many writers: procrastination.
Now, I’m not sure about you, but my creative productivity has been at an all time low over the last year, and my writing even more-so. So what is it that is holding me back? What is preventing me from writing?
- Self doubt
- High stress (either caused by the activity we’re procrastinating doing, or other life events)
- Intensity of the effort ahead (particularly experienced after the first draft is completed)
- Striving for perfection
- Too many distractions
- General emotional burn-out
Sometimes, when you overthink situations, and try and overwork your piece, the thing you love the most becomes the thing you hate. This, I believe, is where my problem arises, and one that I have found pretty much across the board: you’ve finished the first (or second or even third) draft. You know the story’s not perfect. You’ve read over it numerous times, you’ve people interested in reading it, you love the characters and you want to do them justice, but the self-doubt monster has reared its ugly head and you’ve listened to too many podcasts and read too many books telling you what you should be doing, that you’ve almost lost the will to do it. You know it’s broken, but you’re overwhelmed by the amount of effort required to fix it.
So what can you do?
How does one recover from procrastinating?
Easiest answer is, of course, just write. But if something is hard to write, then it’s also likely to be hard to read. You don’t want your story to feel forced. The trick is to get yourself back into the writing mindset.
Here are some solutions we came up with:
- Set deadlines: If re-writing the entire piece is overwhelming, break it down into manageable chunks: ie: “this week I’m going to rewrite chapter one”.
- Timetable: If you are procrastinating by engaging in other activities, set them to a schedule. For example, “I will only spend 20 minutes on Facebook tonight, then I shall write”. Set a timer, and stick to it.
- Take regular breaks: If you are trying to write, and the words aren’t coming, don’t feel obliged to force them. Take a walk, play with the cat, etc. You may find that your brain becomes more alive the moment you step away from the computer, and suddenly you’re rushing to get back to it. Try not to take the breaks too often though, else they’re just another form of procrastination!
- Free write: Sometimes the computer can be inhibiting. Try writing on paper: stream of consciousness or a scene you’ve been looking forward to, or putting your character in a difficult situation and seeing how she wriggles her way out of it. If it’s on paper, it’s more ephemeral, and if it’s good, you can then commit it to type. I wrote about this in my own blog last year.
- Write that scene you’ve been hanging out for: I write my stories sequentially and sometimes I know where a story is going but not how to get there. If you’re having issues writing and there’s a scene you’re excited to be writing, write it! You can always re-work it later to better fit the build-up!
- Seek a critique: Not sure where the story is going? Ask someone that you trust to be honest to read your story. Be careful choosing people to close to you emotionally (ie: spouses), as if they are a little too honest, it can marr your relationship! I suggest finding a writing buddy, as you can read each other’s work (and writers understand other writers). For help in taking critiques well, we have made a post in the past.
- Distract the cat: We adopted a kitten last year, and she always seems to want to be involved in what I’m doing. This can vary from sleeping on or beside me, to chewing on my arm and climbing on the keyboard. If your feline (or puppy, or child) is proving distracting, you can either shut them out of the room or set up another activity to keep them occupied (I recommend “Cats Meow” for kittens). If you have children, schedule your writing time when they are sleeping, or when there is someone else to either watch them or field their attentions.
- Start something new: If you’ve written your story so well in your head that you lack the motivation to put it to paper, take a fresh approach. Either consider the story from a different character’s perspective, or start something else entirely. Take your characters, and write a short story, change the setting, heck, you could even write fanfiction!
- Set a time to write: Set yourself a time to write every day – say between 9 and 11 at night. Sit in front of your keyboard (disable your internet if need be) and don’t permit yourself to move until that time is over. Pretty soon you’ll get sick of staring at that blinking cursor and will put your fingers to the keyboard and, maybe, magic will happen.
What can I do if I can’t break the procrastination blight?
Use your procrastination for being productive in other fashions, here are a few things you can do if you really, really can’t bring yourself to write:
- Housework: I’ve cleaned out my pantry, tidied up my closet and unpacked the last two boxes of books. Pretty soon I’m going to move onto gardening.
- Research: Watch documentaries related to your topic or read articles. Maybe they will re-spark the motivation to write.
- Read: Time spent reading is rarely wasted. Read in your genre – you can always label it as “research”. Read other genres, as a fresh perspective is always worthwhile. Something might inspire you.
- Take up a new hobby: Cooking, drawing, painting, sculpting etc. Then at least your creativity will have an outlet.