It’s All In The Details: Balancing Big And Little Scenes

TA-DA! Doesn’t my blog look lovelier than ever?! It’s so fresh, so exciting, so very in and now…and so very very the same! It seems white (utter blankness) is calming, to me anyway; I tried uploading different backgrounds and headers but to no avail, it just made everything look crowded and distracting and that just doesn’t work for me. I cannot write or read when my eyes don’t know what to settle on; so for now I’m keeping things calm, like a little oasis of tranquility, with little paper umbrella’s in your drinks and all. So let’s kick back, relax and get this thing started!

Writing a novel of any genre is a long process; between planning, research, writing, getting stuck, writing, finding anything ANYTHING with chocolate in it in the house, and writing some more, let’s just say it’s a time-consuming lifestyle (unless you are one of those writers who can get an entire novel out in like three weeks, which personally I think is highly indicative of you being an alien sent this planet to make the rest of us look bad). Suffice it to say, (aliens aside) writing is fraught with frustration, especially when all you can think about is THAT BIG SCENE coming up or at the end of the novel. It drives you insane, it consumes you, it’s all you can think about…finally being able to write that pivotal moment that will MAKE your story and make people remember you. It’s like a siren call, luring you into daydreaming about it instead of writing where you’re at, which leads to aggravation because you are nowhere near that scene and what you’re writing now doesn’t feel as important. It must not be important then, right?

Wrong.

Everything you write is important: every moment, every description, every scene, every minor plot twist and moment of character development. It’s the little things, the details, which draw readers in, making them care enough to feel anything when they finally reach THAT moment. If readers do not care about the characters at the beginning, the middle, or three-quarters in, chances are they are not going to care at the end when that climactic scene finally arrives, no matter how awesome or descriptive the writing has suddenly become. As a writer, it is your job to tell someone else’s story and part of that means finding someone to take the time to read and understand it, which can only truly happen if readers bond with the characters and genuinely care about them suffering through the obstacles placed in their path. This bonding comes largely from the details, the ‘little moments’. From the very first word onward, however long it takes to reach THAT scene, is where you must work your hardest, because it’s here that you have to make someone begin to love, worry, and care about someone beyond themselves. So, that pivotal scene in your novel…it happens a lot sooner than you think and in a moment that you probably did not intend it to. The climax is still important, but so are the details leading up to it.

So plan ahead and write accordingly.

If you want a reader to experience despair in the climactic moment in the middle/near end of a story, you must give them some sort of happiness before that. If you want them to feel safe, they need to have been frightened at some point. Give the readers the opportunity and time to experience one emotion fully so that when you take it away later they feel the loss of it and can truly grieve what was taken. Your novel’s climax might be terrifying or heart-breaking, but it will only be so if, in those unexciting-to-write moments, you’ve detailed your character experiencing the opposite. No one can feel hate if they’ve never felt love, or experience fear if they have never known the warmth of safety. Balance your details, your big moments and little ones and know that both are important to the overall impact of the story you as a writer are trying to tell.

In the end, you want something from the reader: a reaction. And likewise the reader wants something from you: a reason to react. Give readers the opportunity to react by providing them a reason to. Give them the little moments – the details and descriptions – so that when the big moments arrive they understand what’s at stake.

Discussing Dialogue –or– No, People Don’t Actually Talk Like That!

Let me set the scene for you here: it’s blissfully quiet, you’re curled up in your favorite reading chair/couch/whatever with a new book that’s full of promise and you’re just so excited to begin this new journey because, let’s be honest…the cover looks amazing! You’ve thought ahead and brought provisions: a glass of cold, sweet iced tea and some beef jerky (weird combination I know, but these are my ideal provisions I’m dreaming about here! Bring some of your own because I’m not sharing!) And you’re slowly falling in love with the story, the characters, the setting, and the new world; it’s so beautiful and realistic that you forget where you are and what you’re doing…then BAM! Suddenly you’re thrust unhappily back in your own world and you find yourself hunched over in your chair, gnawing on a piece of beef jerky and thinking: “They said what? Who talks like that?!”

Nothing kills the mood and jolts you right out of the pages of a book like poorly written dialogue. It takes pages to draw in a reader and make them care and engage with your characters, but it only takes a sentence to ruin all that hard work. It’s sad…but very true. Poor dialogue destroys whatever beauty or genius was written before it as well as the trust the reader has invested in the author and leaves behind such a bad taste in the reader’s mouth that even beef jerky and a well-timed “What the…?!” cannot fix the damage done. And unfortunately, whatever words/descriptions /plot twists that follow the dialogue are then tainted by the reader’s annoyance and disbelief. This may not make the reader immediately throw the book aside, never look twice at it again forevermore and banish it to some forgotten corner where it cannot annoy anyone ever again, but it does aggravate them and honestly, it negates the overall beauty and impact of the writer’s hard work. So…

Think before you type.

Really…think about what you are having your character say. Ask yourself: “Does that sound natural, have I heard someone say something similar?” or perhaps more importantly: “Would I be embarrassed to say something like that?”  Your answer to these questions should tell you whether or not you are on the right track. If you wouldn’t say something because it sounds forced or unrealistic then why would you have your character say it? If you’re having doubts about your dialogue or aren’t sure if it’s working then read the conversations out loud so you can hear them, it helps! Listen to the flow of worlds, the stops and pauses, the word choice; your character is trying to tell you what needs to be said, but are you listening to them? Dialogue is not hard to write, it is one of the easiest if you just take the time to think about it, but still I encounter characters who say the oddest things in the weirdest ways and I can’t help but clench my teeth and roll my eyes in exasperation…with the AUTHOR. The character may be the one speaking, but if the words come across as forced or silly, I blame the writer for not taking the time to listen to their character and try to understand what should be said. Occasionally awkward dialogue is going to happen, that’s fine, there are times when something just needs to be said for the reader to follow along, but don’t make it a common thing.

If you’re writing historical fiction or speculative fiction in a semi historic setting, writing dialogue is going to be twice as hard, but it is doable!  The required speech patterns differ from our own, as will the word choice but the principles are still the same. Make sure the speech is flowing, natural, and coherent. Would someone actually say that?  If not, then improve it! Watch movies set in the time period you are working in or read books in the same genre as yours; teach yourself how to use the language until it comes natural to you! Put the effort in because it will pay off! Good dialogue may be overlooked by someone who is not looking for it, but bad dialogue stands out to everyone!

Dialogue also leads to problem of the use of the word “said”, which annoys both writer and reader to no end. When you have more than one person speaking, it is important to make sure that the reader knows who the speaker is at any given point and that leads to a lot of “he said” “she said” aggravation. As much as it drives readers nuts to read the word “said” over and over again, it bothers the writer even more (if they are paying attention). This leads to a lot of alternate words used like holler, hoot, snarled, barked, growled, laughed etc. and that’s wonderful…as long as they are used in moderation! There does not need to be one of these alternate words used in place of “said” every single time, I mean really, do you holler or growl all that much? Hopefully not. Sometimes the right word choice is the simplest one: said. In the end it all comes down to what the character is saying and what needs to come across to the reader. Play with the words, use them, enjoy them but always be aware of what is actually going on in the story and between the characters. Use your own judgment and find a happy balance that works for you and doesn’t leave you wanting to claw your own eyes out in frustration! Writing is supposed to be fun…ha-ha.

Write smart and write often, don’t be afraid that you’re going to mess up, just enjoy the process! Mistakes are going to happen, they’re part of the fun of writing and sometimes mistakes lead to awesome new ways of saying something that you never would have thought of before! If you love to write, then write! Perfect your craft and never stop trying to improve it but never forget that the process should be fulfilling, enjoyable, cathartic, and whatever YOU want it to be (despite all the he said/she growled/they hooted drama)!

Delving into the Character of a Great Character

Two blogs in two days, what is the world coming to?!!!!! HA! We can only hope it includes unicorns and dragons and free books and somehow becomes a place where authors get paid an exuberant amount and have all kinds of sparklies lavished upon them daily! I don’t know how the free books and wealthy authors work out together but it’s my dream world so just go with it…just focus on the sparklies…oh the sparklies!

Must…stop thinking about…the sparklies…

So (clears throat) back to writing, (somewhat reluctantly)…characters and their development are essential to almost every novel/short-story of all genres. Settings and plot are not to be downplayed or have their importance lessened of course, but the characters of a story are invaluable. Readers have to love, hate, desire, fear, sympathize with and relate to the people they encounter within the pages of a book. Characters need to be realistic, human (not to be confused with humane), even those who aren’t necessarily  human have to have some sort of relatability to garner some sort of emotion from readers. Heroes. heroines, villans, villainess, best friends and the wacky neighbor down the street all need to be developed to some degree with flaws and imperfections depending on their relevance to the story. A real person is beautiful and ugly at the same time, contains both light and dark aspects and is, in fact, a walking contradiction to some degree. So should a character be.  A good character is three-dimensional, fully functioning and always motivated, always.

Think about it…

There is a reason for everything you do, from going to the fridge out of hunger to grimacing at someone because they once said your hair looked ugly (the jealous fiends!). It’s the same with a person in a story, they will be petty and hungry and those characteristics will drive them forward. A real character will have real motivations, real desires and real flaws. To write convincing characters think about yourself, about the people you know, what makes them seems real? What moves them? (Not that you should be writing the people you know into your stories, this is more of a practice thing). But above all listen to the characters themselves.  Take the time to listen to the stories they have to tell, suspend judgment (which is harder done than said) and their desires and motivations will reveal themselves. Don’t be afraid to write a protagonist with serious flaws, as long as those flaws fit the character; he or she should be relatable. No one is perfect and those who are perceived to be are usually annoying and instantly turn people off. On the other side, a villain will always have a motivation as well and it very well could be based off of a desire to do a perceived good as opposed to raw malicious intent. Don’t make the mistake of only focusing on one side of the story, the villain does not have to be completely sympathetic to the point where the reader will be confused about who to root for, nor does a protagonist have to be devoid of negative attributes; a touch of humanity goes a long way.

Take the time to fully develop a character and a character’s voice, don’t rush into a story without knowing who you are really writing about. Be patient, think about who this person/character is, what does he/she want and why, how do they feel about all this, how would they react to this obstruction being placed in front of them, would they balk, fight, run? And remember: be consistent, if a character’s character changes (and it should over the course of a novel) then it should be gradual and displayed over time. No one changes (fully) in one day. I’ve never understood writers who say they force their characters to do something or think a certain way or give them a name they want them to have, it seems unnatural and a character must be natural. If you have a naturally shy and timid character and you force them to suddenly — and without provocation — engage in a sword fight or a catty battle of words with someone they fear, it comes across as unnatural and leaves the reader feeling cheated and confused. Why did this character suddenly engage instead of withdraw, or inexplicably develop a taste for adventure when the previous fifty or so pages described them as a contented homebody? If a character naturally does something odd or naturally changes then there should be an understandable motivation behind it — it should not be because the writer wanted this random change — and it should take time to occur.

Understanding the intricacies of a character is not difficult, merely time-consuming, but taking the time to understand the “whys” makes translating a believable character to the page that much easier for both the writer and the reader. Don’t be afraid to question a character, the most important thing a writer can do is ask “Why?”.

Fooled you didn’t I?! It’s Called World-Building

Well I certainly did not plan on being away for that long (sheepish grin). I imagine you all were beginning to lose hope, but hold fast dear friends, for I have returned! For some reason — that I am oh so thankful for —  I got into a writing zone and was having a deliriously happy time writing my novel, though I did feel somewhat neglectful of my blog (I just miss you all so much when I’m gone).

So…hmm today’s topic, let’s think…what should I rant/give advice on today. I think it would be both wise and practical to build on the last blog ( the intricacies of fantasy writing, research etc), and discuss that oh-so-important thing called WORLD-BUILDING. We touched on that before but now lets delve a little deeper shall we.

First of all, consistency is an essential element of world-building in a novel, so early on it is important to take notes, pages and pages of notes if need be. This sounds very basic I know, but it’s surprising how often people think they will remember tiny important details because “their brain knows this is important and must be remembered”. Yeah, that doesn’t tend to work well in the long run. If you think of something like the name of a character or a town or the reason why your character has wings growing out of his feet or something WRITE IT DOWN IMMEDIATELY. Notes are invaluable in the long run, you may mention something or someone once and then  not mention them again for a hundred pages or two and by that time all the information you had may just be lost inside your mind. Notes allow writers a quick and easy way to access forgotten information which allows them to stay consistent with their previous statements. If a character has brown hair and green eyes at the beginning of the story it’s annoying to a reader to suddenly read about black hair and blue eyes (unless something drastic has happened of course and it has been properly explained). If a character is seventeen at the start of a novel and has yet to have another birthday in the course of it, they should not be twenty at the end. Consistency seems so simple, so effortless but it is one of the easiest ways to destroy your work and your reader’s patience with you.

I am guilty of not writing things down at once too, and trust me, it’s nothing but aggravation when you can’t remember something brilliant you had just thought of the day before, or an hour ago, for five minutes ago before some random song got stuck in your head or your brain just randomly switched to…and there it is, it’s that easy to lose your sentence (or whatever it was).

Also, world-building in fantasy/sci-fi/ ect novels is nothing if not details. A world and its existing societies have to be believable as well as relatable however different they are from our own. Get the reader’s attention with the “whys” and “hows”, get their sympathy but don’t bore them to tears with twenty pages on what trees grow where or why the ruling class thinks poorly of the peasants. There is a fine line between not enough information and too much. The details you give a reader need to have a purpose in the plot, they need to make you feel something for a character or a place or give you that nagging suspicion that something might be upsetting the order later on. Explain why your characters are so beat down and ragged, or why the ground is inhospitable to life-giving crops; give something for readers to cheer for, to hate, to understand. The smallest detail can impact the entirety of a novel. (And besides the more details you have about the running of your world or character, the easier it is to write them!) Give your readers something to grasp onto. Readers need to be involved in the reading process, they need just enough information that they feel as though they are contributing to the story in someway, or are at least a part of it. Engage them, dazzle them , leave them guessing but also leave them hope. Details are the only hope readers have, they are the only thing to base possible idea’s  and conclusions off of.

There is much much more involved in the world-building process of writing but I do believe I will save that up for another blog and another time (just to keep you on your toes)! So don’t be afraid to experiment with new and different writing idea’s, but always remember to stay consistent in your own world and the more details you have the easier it is to write because you’ll understand the all important “whys” and “hows”! I would add something witty or sarcastic here to mark the end of this rant/blog, but to be quite honest, I can’t think of anything!

Fantastical Fantasy and the Utterly Clueless…

As a fantasy writer I have come across my fair share of people who think my chosen genre is nothing but silly reused nonsense comprised of the same old places, people and adventures. And in a way it is. The same archetypal characters and situations are employed, but for good reason and to great effect if done properly, but more on that in another blog I think. Overall, unless people write fantasy novels (in one sub-genre or another) or are natural fans, they tend to look down their noses at the people whose minds dwell in the past atop some misty hill where the fey are dancing before their very eyes.

For example:

I have often heard that as a historical fantasy writer, my job must be very easy considering my characters/environments don’t have to conform to “real” world rules that tug and weigh down people in the “real” world. If I want the grass to be ruby-red well then my grass is ruby-red, if I want my characters to fly…then POOF they can fly without anymore explanation than my typing that they can do so. Yeah…here’s what I have to say about that: Say you have a character in both a modern-day  ordinary novel as well as one in a historical fantasy one, and say that character lives in a very desert-like dry place and you are having him/her get dressed for the day. Naturally he/she must put something on that will be cool enough that she/he will not suffer a heat stroke the moment she/he opens the front door.  It takes all of two seconds for the modern character and writer to decide to throw on a cool cotton t-shirt because hey, t-shirts are real, they’re relatively cool and no one would question that.

But…

That same character in a h/f novel cannot just grab an old cotton shirt from the bottom of his wardrobe, that is before the author has considered and researched the following:

1) Did they have cotton clothing in the time period you are writing in?

2) If so, how did they make it and where? Is it something that can be grown and produced in the land you are writing about? Or must is be shipped from elsewhere, or is that even an option for your novel?

3) Which leads you to research the necessities of growing cotton: how much water is needed, does your dry-hot land provide that much water, what soil is best? ect. ect.

Because if your character is living in a cotton-inhospitable environment without access to trade, then they cannot possibly throw on a cotton garment. And for those who don’t think readers will notice, you might be surprised at the amount of things a fantasy reader will pick up on. They notice almost everything! If there is an inconsistency, THEY WILL SEE IT AND IT WILL BUG THE CRAP OUT OF THEM. Which may impact your future sales.

But I hear you, I hear you, what about silk, leather, muslin, wool…something else! Why don’t you just chose something else and skip all this drama? Well…it all involves the same process. Where do you get the silkworms, leather might work but it will be hot as heck, muslin is a form of cotton clothing  and puts you right back in the old problem, and wool garments –other than being hot and itchy–  of course comes from a live animal (sheep/goat/camel ect.) and that leads you to the keeping of animals in the dry-hot place.

Basically, if you build a world instead of using the provided one with all its well-known and deeply ingrained rules and limitations, you must literally build one. From the ground up. The world must make sense or it will fail. That requires time and effort to be spent outside the actual story, so that the author truly understands the place he or she is describing. Fantasy novels aren’t all wizards and fairies and such, they’re a study in plant life, science and zoology. It takes two seconds to grab a cotton t-shirt, but hours and days to study how that shirt came into existence.

Think about it the next time you scoff at a fantasy novel, or tell the author what they do is easy. Think about it the next time you go to grab a shirt; take a moment to feel the texture of the material between your fingers and thank the lucky stars that you don’t HAVE to know anything other than it fits. And even that’s optional nowadays.