Thursday, July 31, 2014

Characters: An Introduction

Over the next few months I will be doing a ten part series on characters in writing. Today’s post, part one, will deal with the very basics. Why we have characters, what their role is and how they drive the plot. First, I would like to outline the program as a whole:

01: Characters: An Introduction
As mentioned, this post will cover the basics and introduce you to the series.

02: Character Profiles
What is a character profile? Why do you need them? What do you need to put in them? I’ll show you how I organise mine, not just to keep track of hair colour and favourite foods, but to develop sub-plots, drive the novel forward and create natural conflict between characters.

03: Character Motivation
Kurt Vonneguard said: ‘Every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.’ Your character’s motivations don’t just drive the plot, they define them as people. Motivation is the core of characterisation.

04: Designing Characters
Tips on designing awesome, balls-to-the-wall, memorable characters. Then some tips for making those awesome characters actually fit in to the setting you created for them.

05: Gender and Gender Roles
Should your characters be male or female? Does it matter? Can you pass the Bechdel test? If lesbian porn can do it, so can you!

06: Conflict, Conflict and More Conflict
Your story needs more conflict. That conflict then needs to be maintained properly, escalated and finally resolved in a manner that has the strongest impact on the character and reader.

07: Heroes
Everyone thinks they are a hero. The worst people around you every day think they are the rising star, battling the injustices of the world. So what separates our protagonists from our villains?

08: Villains
Good villains are the ones you love to hate. The ones who make you so angry you want to throw the book against the wall. Sometimes the best villains are the ones you’re just a little bit attracted to too. Or terrified of. Either way, your villain has to be the strongest part of your story, because your hero can only push back as hard as your villain pushes forward.

09: Character Consistency
Do you ever read a book or watch a movie and completely lose your shit when the brilliant, tough heroine suddenly forgets how to take care of herself when a big strong man is around? Or when your favourite cold as ice villain does something so stupid it’s not just inconsistent, it’s like she had a full frontal lobotomy between scenes? Characters need to be consistent. Here’s how to check you’re not committing a plot-crime.

10: Driving Forces
Plot driven or character driven? What does that mean? Should it really be one or the other, or are the best stories both?

Excited yet? Hopefully the answer is yes, or it’s going to be very quiet around here for a few weeks.

Characters: An Introduction:

So what are characters? Obviously they are the people your story is about. Things happen to them and they do things that take you from ‘chapter one’ to ‘the end’. However what characters REALLY are, is your connection to the reader.

If you want really rabid fans, write good characters. Write Katniss and Harry Potter, I recall their names much faster than the women who created them. Alek and Deryn, Sand Dan Glokta, Arya and the Hound, Will Trent; my favourite character’s names are tattooed on my soul.

But it’s not just about the reader falling in love. The reader is literally experiencing the story through the character’s senses. The characters are the conduit to the story and it’s a very intimate relationship. Seeing what someone is seeing, hearing their thoughts—we don’t even experience that with our husbands and wives, so you need to write characters that readers want to spend time with. People they can stand to get that intimate with.

So let’s kick this series off with an exercise:

First, choose three or four of your favourite characters. Then, answer these questions about them:

1. List their top three personality traits.
2. What scene made you fall in love with them?
3. Who is their greatest enemy?
4. What was their darkest moment?
5. What is it you like about them?

What do you notice? Do your favourite characters have anything in common? Is there a theme immerging? Do they have nothing at all in common? Tell me in the comments!

Monday, July 28, 2014

13 Ways To Stay Motivated While Writing

Writing a novel is a marathon—it’s not something you can bang out in an afternoon or a long weekend. It takes persistence and focus over months, sometimes years, and no matter how passionate you are about the project, there are times when motivating yourself becomes a challenge.

Here are thirteen ways I keep myself motivated during the long slog to ‘The End’.

1. Write A Timeline.
One of the most demotivating things about writing is being confused. Go through your notes and chapters and make sure you have a detailed timeline for your novel. Keep it current, it will make your life so much easier.

2. Small Rewards.
Get a bag of MnMs or jellybeans, Written?Kitten!, or even paint one finger nail at a time and use these tools to reward yourself every 200 or 500 words.

3. Big Rewards.
Reward yourself big for major milestones. Not just dinner somewhere nice, but something you’ve been wanting or needing for a long time. When I finish my seven book romance series I have every intention of buying myself a new gaming laptop.

4. Have A Dance Break.
Every fifteen or twenty minutes, put on your favourite dance song and leap around the room like a racoon on crack. Increasing your heart rate will increase the blood flow to your brain and you'll sit down at the computer operating on full capacity again. A one minute dead sprint on the treadmill will do the same job.

5. Have A Daily Achievements Buddy.
I always have one or two friends I speak to every evening, just for a few minutes, so we can report our writing achievements for the day. Word counts, pages edited, timeline planning--whatever we've done, we share and congratulate. Shared enthusiasm is contagious.

6. Keep A Pinterest Board For Your WIP.
Or several. I like to have one board for locations and setting, one board for fashion of the era/world, one board for each of the main characters with their clothes, weapons and any celebrity doppelgangers they may have, one board for NPCs and minor characters and another for monsters/beasts/technology in the setting. Look through it when you're feeling unmotivated, or use it to help you with description and details.

7. Read Your Favourite Scene.
Keep bookmarks on the best scenes in your favourite novels and re-read them when you're stumped. Just try to avoid the temptation to spend the afternoon reading. For several years, when I was stuck I would read passages from ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King. Which is why I still have some of them memorised.

8. Meditate.
Don't know how? Look for some clips on youtube. You'll be surprised what 10 minutes of mental silence can do for you. It's like a soft re-boot of your brain. That brain silence is what your mind is looking for when it compels you to clean the bathroom when you're stuck on a scene, but meditation is a little more focused.

9. Read Your Thesaurus.
Or baby name book. It's good to have physical book copies of these, as it gives your eyes a break from the computer screen.

10. Physical Coordination.
Do something that requires physical coordination. I know most writers are naturally quiet, geeky types. However sport, dancing, yoga etc all form important new connections in the neural pathways that make writing so much easier.

11. Write A List.
I love lists more than I love chocolate. Get creative. Write a list of the first twenty things you'd do if you won the lottery. Or the top five things your main character would want if they were marooned on an island. Or the top ten reasons you want to finish writing that scene today.

12. Learn A New Skill.
Find something you know absolutely nothing about and learn how to do it. Bee-keeping, weaving, thatching roofs, smoky-eye makeup, changing your spark-plugs, growing orchids, baking a pavlova. Learning new stuff stimulates and brain and for a writer, no knowledge is useless.

13. Make Word Goal Jars.
A little like small rewards, Word Goal Jars are a physical version of ‘levelling up’ in writing. Every 500/1000 words, or every scene, you move a little glass bead from one jar to another—which effectively keeps track of your word count in a way you can see and touch and gives you that momentary rush of success. It also really motivates you toward the end. 6000 words seems huge, but six glass beads is nothing.

As you can see, the photo for today’s blog is my Word Goal Jars. I made them myself from two vases, some silver lettering from a craft store and those little glass bead things. They were cheap to make and are totally awesome. (That’s Ori ‘helping’ with the photograph.)

Do you have anything to add to this list? How do you stay motivated?

Friday, July 18, 2014

People Are Assholes - The Chronically Ill Perspective

I don’t like to lie to people. I also generally don’t like to make people uncomfortable, unless it is productive in some way. I am sure getting feedback from me on writing is uncomfortable for people sometimes but that is okay because no one gets feedback unless they have come to me and asked for it.

Often not lying and not making people uncomfortable are at odds. Particularly when it comes to my health issues.

This article is not about writing. It’s about chronic illness. Feel free to pass on the rest of the article and come back next week for more writing talk.

I don’t tell people I am ill unless it comes up. In most cases it would be easiest and most comfortable for the people I am talking to for me to lie. However I do not like lying. It makes me uncomfortable. I do not feel that I should be made to hide my condition for the sake of other people’s happiness.

Usually when people ask what I do, I say I am an author—which is a half truth and usually interesting enough that people focus on that. However when pressed with more direct questions I will always offer the full truth:

“I am chronically ill. I spend much of my time too unwell to leave the house. There is a high chance I will relapse. There is a high chance that relapse will kill me. That could happen tomorrow. Or never. Either way, I am never going to get better.”

That’s the truth. Mostly, when people hear it from me, they hear it in the form of a joke. I turn all the pain and misery into a zany story and I encourage people to laugh with me. “My skin rotted off! Can I top that? What new and exciting symptom will I have this week? Stay tuned, to find out!”

This is good for everyone. It’s good for me, because turning it into a game is what keeps me alive. It’s good for other people, because it lets them ask questions without feeling like they have to act sad or comfort me and it tells them how to behave (laugh) in a situation they are unfamiliar with (self deprecating, terminally ill people).

That said, as much as possible I omit the truth and the longer I can hide the fact I am a rotting sag of barely functioning organs, the better.

So on Saturday, I was too ill to go to the Abbey Festival. Someone asked what I was doing that day and I expressed that my plans had been changed due to illness. They encouraged me to go anyway and I said that I would if I could, but I was unable.

Cue a rant about their terminally ill relative, who still got out and tried to do things, even though they were sick.

Firstly, I genuinely hope it’s true and that their bedridden, reliant on morphine relative does get out and do stuff. Because that’s awesome and in the chronic illness community, you learnt to celebrate each other’s victories.

However I wonder if that same relative knows someone is using their illness to bully other people? I am guessing no.

When I explained that I too was chronically ill and that much like their relative, I did do stuff when I can, but there was a lot of days when that was not possible, they said I had no right to be annoyed, as I had not told them about my condition.

The thing is, if my ‘healthy’ friends cancel on me because I have a cold, I don’t say: “Oh boo, you whore. I’m an animated corpse. Suck it up, princess.”

When it comes to chronic illness, there are five things I would like to drill into people:

1. It’s not a competition. No one ‘wins’ by being sicker. Trust me, if I could lose that competition, I would.

2. No one has a right to judge anyone else’s health. Not even doctors.  Doctors should diagnose and treat. There is a special place in hell for judgemental doctors.

3. We should empathise with each other. We should not try and lord our superiority over each other. Also, nothing about being sick makes you superior. Suffering does not make you superior. Having to have someone else pour milk into your cereal because your hands are shaking does not make you a goddamn martyr. It’s sucky. I’m sorry it’s sucky, no one should treat you like less of a person because your life sucks, but You. Are Not. Better. Than. Anyone. Okay?

4. Carers are the best people ever and should be treated like celebrities. However if you use someone else’s illness as an excuse for your bad behaviour, you’re still a dickhead.

5. You don’t have a right to know anything about anyone else’s health. When people ask me I am happy to tell them because SJS is rare and I am all for people understanding and learning. But I don’t have to tell people I’m sick. If you look like an asshole because you didn’t know, that’s on you, not me.

Hopefully this cleared up any confusion you might have had about being a complete shithat around people who are chronically ill, or not chronically ill, but who are still alive and have basic human rights and feelings.

Postscript: If you ask me how I’m feeling, and I say ‘good’ what I really mean is: ‘I’m in agony, but something interesting happened’.

Alternatively, I am lying because I don’t like you enough to have a conversation about it.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

It's Never, Ever Good Enough... Or Is It?

In 2003 I finished my first full length novel. It was an epic fantasy--the first in a trilogy--and it was 167, 000 words. I then proceeded to write two thirds of the second book, which was around 100k when I stepped away from the project.

Like most teenagers first novels it was riddled with clichés and a stylistic disaster. I knew it wasn't as good as I wanted. I knew I had to improve my writing skill and try again when I had the knowledge to make it as awesome as I knew it could be.

And so I fell into a pattern. I'd write a novel (or two) then fish out Arqum and have another bash at it. I'd write 10k, decide it still wasn't up to snuff and put it away again. I think I have eight openings to Arqum now, started in different years. A weird Groundhog Day timeline of my developing skills.

Over the years the story has developed and grown into five books. All of my favourite world building and ideas are funnelled into the Arqum universe. Its moved from a rather cliché, bland setting to one bursting with the best ideas I've had in the past 11 years.

I know how wonderful I want it to be, but my abilities are still growing and changing. Even my tentative efforts to write a new first scene early last year seem clumsy compared to what I can do now.

There are several authors who have heavily influenced Arqum's development: Lynn Flewelling, China Mieville and Joe Abercrombie being the top three. Reading Joe's newest book, Half A King', has inspired me to fire it up again.... despite the fact I am in the middle of several other projects.

Do I think I am ready this time? It's too early to say. Probably not. However I can lay a lot of groundwork for when I am ready. I spent five hours today organising an immense Scrivener file with a section for races, animals and monsters, regions and cities, character profiles, religion, magic, several timelines and other world building. Each of the five books has its own file and each file contains a collection of smaller files for each of the character arcs.

However ready or not, nothing makes me happier than revisiting this world and these characters. Maybe I never want to be ready, because maybe I never want to give this story away to the world. Or maybe this time I will see it through and share my magnum opus with the world.

Either way, this is as good as it gets.