Posted in writing

What I learned about character development from the X-Files

mulder and scullyLast week, my husband and I started watching the X-Files for the first time. Not the new remake, but the original series. Neither of us has ever seen it, though I’m old enough to remember when they first came out. I didn’t expect to like it–and I didn’t at first. But by the third episode came around, I was hooked.

The Characters

Character development isn’t something you see much in TV anymore–or even in a lot of books. Which is a shame, because it can contribute a lot to the plot and conflict. I’ve found that flat or cookie-cutter characters to be boring. They just don’t hold my attention.

The X-Files did more than develop characters. From the moment we meet Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, we aren’t just meeting cardboard cutouts. They stand on their own two feet, as real and complex as the writers could make them, with obvious weaknesses to balance out their strengths.

Dana Scully is logical, clear-headed, and intelligent, but she also has a tendency to be closed-minded. Fox Mulder is just as intelligent, but because he believes in the unbelievable, has a tendency to come across as being crazy. He’s also reckless, a workaholic, and so focused on his goals and beliefs as to wear blinders. It doesn’t take long before they both respect each other’s abilities, and later–if what I’ve heard about the series is correct–come to love each other. Mulder and Scully are as opposite as two people can be, but is it any wonder they come to love each other when they complete each other so well? No.

What I took from the series

We haven’t finished watching the series yet, so I’m sure I’ll have plenty more to add to this before it’s all said and done. What they writers did with Mulder and Scully is basically my new writing goal. To somehow create compelling characters that you fall in love with–if not on first sight, then second–with strengths that aren’t completely unbelievable or over the top, while weaving in obvious weaknesses without driving people away.

Sounds difficult? You have no idea. And I want to do it. If I could do that with my books, then I could create a story that readers will want to go back to time and again.

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Posted in daily life, writing

My first meeting with the Dallas/Fort Worth chapter of ACFW

Yesterday I attended the Dallas/Fort Worth chapter of ACFW for the first time.

BeckyWade_Photo_1_26_16Yesterday was a day of firsts for me. First time to attend the Dallas/Fort Worth chapter of ACFW. First time to drive into Arlington by myself. First time to get lost in Arlington. But of course I was going to get lost in Arlington. This is me we’re talking about. I get lost in Wal-Mart, for cryinig out loud.

Oh, and yesterday was the first time to walk into Chick fil A and decide I don’t want to eat at Chick fil A. Too crowded. But that’s beside the point.

Yesterday I attended my first writers meeting since moving to moving to Waxahachi back in December. It felt good to be back among writers, and I’m looking forward to making some friends. They look like a great group of people, and, since they have a new speaker ever month, I’m bound to learn something from them.

I definitely got to learn something this go round. They had Becky Wade come by and tell us about Taming the Social Media Beast. She told us about her experience with social media, and gave us tips for how to get the most out of Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She made it sound easy, and I have to say, she almost convinced me join Twitter. Almost. She did, however, tell us about making your own pins for Pinterest, and that is something I want to learn. Eventually. After I dig up my notes from the black hole in my purse.

Which goes to show you that not only am I a little introverted and antisocial, I tend to put things off, too.

I don’t know if my social media skills will ever get me published. Honestly, I doubt it. My skills aren’t the best, and neither are my number of followers. Some days, I think I’m doing fine. Then I compare myself to other people and get depressed. It makes me want to hire someone to have them look at my stuff and tell me what I’m doing wrong.

Maybe some of Beck Wade’s tips will rub off on me.

I don’t know. If I ever do get published, it will be because of two things: one–the quality of my writing, and two–the goodness and grace of the Lord. Not the number of followers I have. But numbers can’t hurt.

Posted in writing

What Music I Listen to While Writing

listen-to-mozart-while-workingEvery writer likes to write in a different environment. Some like to write in a busy cafe, surrounded by the smells of coffee and the sounds of people. Others have to write in complete quietness. Others put on music or the TV.

While there is absolutely no way I would ever be able to write with the TV going–I only end up watching it–I like to write to music. Three or four laptops ago, I had all my favorite CDs on my computer, and I’d listen to music for hours while I typed. Nowadays, I just put on Pandora.

For example, right now I’m listening Riverdance. I find that the uptempo fiddling music helps stimulate my brain cells so that my fingers fairly dance to the music. They stimulate my feet, too. It’s a good thing I like to write alone, because no one needs to see me dance.

When I’m not listening to Riverdance or other fiddle music, I’ll listen to movie soundtracks. Other times, especially if I need to especially concentrate on what I’m writing, I’ll put on classical music. Classical pieces composed by people like Mozart and Beethoven work especially well for background noise.

I do not like listening to music where people sing. This weeds out most everything you’d hear on the radio–pop, metal, rock and roll, blues, country. I find the human voice to be too distracting. I find myself paying too much attention to the words, trying to figure out what they’re saying.

Now, I can make exceptions to songs I’ve heard so many times I have their words memorized, or perhaps opera, where the words are sung in another language and I have no chance of understanding what they say. Thankfully, Pandora only plays things I like to listen to, so if I don’t like it I don’t have to listen to it.

Posted in book critique, writing

Critique of Curt Benjamin’s Seven Brothers Trilogy

curt benjaminSince I decided to write fantasy, I’ve made it my mission to read more fantasy books. This weekend, I snuggled down and read Curt Benjamin’s Seven Brothers trilogy. I have to say, it was pretty good. Different, but a great read.

The back blurb said that Mr. Benjamin took “legends, cultures, and traditions of the East to create an epic tale.” I could definitely feel the Eastern influence in the story in the cultures of the different people the main character, Llesho, meets. But instead of turning me off, as some stories influenced by the east have done, I was caught up in Mr. Benjamin’s coming-of-age quest.

During his quest to find his lost brothers, win his country back from invaders and free heaven from invading demons, Llesho crosses deserts, grasslands and a sea. He meets princes, emperors, “mortal gods,” and slaves. He begins his life a boy and a slave. By the end of the tale, he’s not only free, but much more than he ever thought he could be.

Normally, when I do one of these critiques, I include a link to the author’s website. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find one. I’ll just have to settle for pointing people to amazon. If you like coming of age stories and quests against oppressive invaders, I recommend these books. You’ll cry and throw tantrums (I did!), but the ending satisfies. Well done, Mr. Benjamin.

Posted in writing

Lessons about writing I learned from reading

Why Should Writers Read?

lost-in-a-book-2Aspiring writers receive many pieces of advice. One is if writers want to improve their writing, then they need to read as much as possible. There’s a reason for this.

An observant reader will pick out mistakes from what they read. They will notice what makes their favorite stories work. Readers will develop likes and dislikes, and if those readers also happen to be writers, they will incorporate the lessons they learned from reading into their stories.

I’m not the most observant of readers. I have the tendency to read primarily for pleasure. Learning from what I read was a bonus. However, even I have learned a thing or two from the things I’ve read. Let me explain.

Complex characters are more interesting than flat or cookie-cutter ones

I love well-developed characters. I love reading a book and seeing how characters grow and become these awesome heroes that just decimate their enemies. Or whatever it is they’re fighting. I love it when characters change and overcome. Characters who get put through the wringer work their butts off for what they want–they deserve their reward.

Flat or cookie-cutter characters annoy me to no end. I look at them and I’m disappointed in the writer. Couldn’t that author have worked a little bit harder and given their character more depth? A history? And why do writers re-use their characters? It’s like they pick up John Doe from Book X, dye his hair and give him contacts, and then place him in Book Y. Same character and almost the same book.

Flat or cookie-cutter characters don’t change. They don’t grow. If they do, it’s because they’ve been reused and are growing in the same way. Ug. Give us readers a little bit of variety, people.

A well written character does more than just act the part. They drive the book, map out their own plots, and send conflict skyrocketing. You’re plot doesn’t make the characters–you’re characters make the plot.

If your character must be cookie-cutter or personify some stereotype, make sure you do the best job you can. And dent the cookie-cutter while you’re at it. Make this character your own. Every author is different. Make your books different, too.

That’s why I never hesitate to torture my characters. I enjoy it too, and rarely feel sorry for what I’m doing to them. In then end, I know I’ll have a better story.

If the scene doesn’t contribute, get rid of it.

I can’t tell you how many times I read a scene and think, “why is this here?” Romance novels can be bad about this–which is sad, because I love reading romances. All those sex scenes–are they really necessary? At what point to they become redundant?

I’m not a romance writer, so I can’t answer those questions. However, as a writer, I can tell you that superfluous scenes get added or left in for a variety of reasons. Maybe the writer needs to pad their word count, make the story longer. Maybe the writer honestly thought the scene necessary to the story.

It’s always easier to add to a story than to take away. Make sure whatever scenes you include in your story drive it someway. If it doesn’t do anything, do your own editing and get rid of it. This way, when the editor comes along with his or her evil red pen, they’ll have less to get rid of than before.

Avoid info-dumping at all costs

Info-dumping: the process of dumping as much information onto a page as possible.

You’ve probably run into this yourself. You’re reading a book–maybe a scifi or fantasy novel–and you’re character comes to a new place. Suddenly, you’re reading not just what the place looks like, but who built it, what he looked like and what he had for breakfast for thirty years. Info dump.

Information dumping can be boring and unnecessary. Granted, some info-dumping can be necessary for world building. Science fiction and fantasy novels typically have a lot of world building to do, and if they want their readers to understand the environment, details are necessary.

The thing is, there is a difference between info-dumping and telling readers what they need to know to understand the scene.

When world building, most of the details of that world will never make it into the book. I’ve got a file of world-building notes from my last book that is almost as big as the book itself. As an author, I will need every single one of those notes. My readers do not.

When you write your story, do not dump all the pertinent information all at once. Tell what the readers need to know and no more. Do they need to know what the temple looks like? Fine, but don’t give them so much that the information stretches on for three pages. That much detail isn’t necessary. Is it necessary for them to know why the temple is there, or about the battle that was fought at that location a hundred years ago? Fine, but put it someplace else, later on in the story–maybe during a conversation.


What did you think? Feel free to leave your comments below.

 

 

Posted in book critique, writing

Critique of Seanan McGuire’s books

seanan mcguireI have a confession to make. These past two weeks, I’ve been a very poor writer. And it’s all Seanan McGuire‘s fault.

Don’t get me wrong, Ms. McGuire is a great writer, but that’s the problem. Thanks to her October Daye novels, I haven’t gotten any work done. I haven’t done any writing and I’ve barely done any packing. I’ve done nothing except read–read, read, read, as fast as I can, followed by flying trips to the library for more of her books.

Considering I’m moving in a week, that’s a problem.

No, what’s more of a problem is the fact that the library doesn’t have the latest two October Daye novels. Once I finish reading Chimes at Midnight (sometime later this afternoon), I’m going to be out of books. Wah!

I’m seriously thinking about ordering the entire series as an early Christmas gift to myself, but there’s the move to consider. Really, how responsible would it be to buy books while I’m in the middle of moving? What if they get lost in the mail? Besides, I don’t have anywhere to put them. Although, that’s never stopped me before . . . .

Posted in writing

My Writing Goals for November

November is Nanowrimo

penNational Novel Writing Month–that’s what Nanowrimo stands for. This month, many of my writer friends are buckling down to write their novel in a month. The official goal is 50,000 words, but writers are free to set their own writing goals. Not everyone will meet their goal–November is a difficult month to write in, what with Thanksgiving happening smack in the middle of it and all.

I won’t be officially participating in Nanowrimo, though I have in the past. This year I’m just not quite ready for it. I’ve just finished writing a long, 120,000 word fantasy novel, and I’m in the middle of editing it.  That doesn’t mean I haven’t set any writing goals for November. I have.

One: Continue Editing Book One

Editing, I’ve learned, is a never ending process, especially for those writers who aren’t published. The work never ends, and there will always be work needed done on your story. Since I want to try to get this story published and want to shop for agents next spring, I’m trying to get my story as polished as I can get it. Until I see this book on bookshelves in local bookstores, I will probably always be editing it.

Two: Brainstorm and Research Book Two

While I would probably be perfectly happy editing my first book, I do want to start on the sequel. However, there are things I need to do first before I write a single word. One is brainstorm. I’ve got all kinds of ideas, and I need to get them down and organized. I spent a good four to six months on the first story writing in totally the wrong direction. I don’t want to make that mistake again. I want to know where my second story is headed–in general, if not specifically.

I also have some research that needs doing–though I will probably do the research as I need to, instead of all at once. Fantasy writing often necessitates a lot of research, especially when it comes to character and story-world building. My character is going to a totally different place on the other side of the world. I need to decide what I am basing those cities and places on, and research them. For example, I know that these cities are going to have a higher level of technology than what my character is used to, so I will be researching that technology. In this case, an industrial revolution, similar to what you see in many steam punk novels. I’m not familiar with steam punk, so I’ll be research that as well.

Three: Write About 15-20k Words on Book Two

Then finally, I actually want to do some writing. Editing, brainstorming and researching are all well and good, but they’re worthless if I don’t actually work on the story. Since I have so many other things to work on this November, I’ve limited my word count to only 15-20 thousand words. That should get me started, and hopefully by then I’ll know what the rest of the story will be about.


 

It’s a busy November, but I’m looking forward to it. To all my writer friends, good luck and have fun!

Posted in book critique, writing

A critique for Kage Baker’s fantasy novels

 This week I read . . . .

kage bakerEveryone, meet Kage Baker.  Kage Baker died in 2010, but before she died, she wrote several sci-fi and fantasy novels. Her fantasy novels include The Anvil of the World, The House of the Stage, and The Bird of the River. These three novels all take place in the same colorful world. I’m sad Mrs. Baker didn’t have a chance to write more novels in this world. Her world has so much potential for more stories. I enjoyed her pacing, the plots, and the bits of humor she sneaks in every now and then. If her fantasy novels read this well, then perhaps I’ll consider her sci-fi books as well.

Posted in writing

What I Learned from the 2015 ACFW Conference in Dallas

What I learned at the 2015 ACFW Conference in Dallas

penEvery year, ACFW holds a national writers conference. This year it was held in Dallas. Many writers go to connect to other writers, talk to agents and editors, or to participate in one of the many continuing education courses. This conference is usually fairly expensive, but the excellent quality makes the expenses worth it.

I decided to attend the conference for the first time and so two weeks ago, I hopped in the car and went to the conference. Since this was my first national conference with the ACFW, I decided to keep it simple. I didn’t sign up to talk to any editors or agents. Instead, I attended one of the continuing education courses.

Kristen-HeitzmannKristen Heitzmann taught a class titled Keys to Compelling Stories. The class was targeted toward beginning writers, though advanced writers would find her class useful as well. Kristen walked through what elements made for a compelling story and how to implement them in your novel. It was a very basic course, full of fundamental information any writer ought to know.

Elements to a compelling story included:

the first line/paragraph/page

characters

motivation

dialogue

plot/conflict

point of view

I’m not going to rehash everything she taught, but I will list what tidbits of wisdom I came home with.

The Beginning

The beginning of your story is crucial. This is your opportunity to catch your readers attention. Fail to do that, and they’ll put your book down. A compelling story is not satisfied wit mediocrity. It cannot be skimmed.

Make sure your readers have a strong reaction to your story–a strong good reaction to it. You don’t want to chase away your readers right off the bat. A strong 1st line forms a story around itself. The 1st paragraph bonds readers with the protagonist, and the 1st page promises more to come. Why should your readers care to continue? Tell them.

Characters

Readers need to relate to your characters on some level. Characters usually have 3 human elements to them.

  1. Physical–what do they look like?
  2. Emotional–their emotions need to engage the readers’ emotions
  3. Spiritual–what do they believe? Atheist? Their relationship with God can create depth.

Something else to keep in mind is that characters have both inborn traits and variable traits, just like we do. Their inborn traits are the things they were born with–hair color, height, etc. These things are fixed and can’t be changed. Their variable traits are the things that are the product of experience. Do they have a fear of heights because they fell out of a tree as a child? That’s a variable experience.

However, don’t give characters a trait just for the heck of it. Traits have to function–characters don’t have them just for the heck of it. Meaning, reveal these traits during the plot of your story. If your character has a fear of heights, then put them at the top of a skyscraper. Otherwise, get rid of it.

Motivation

Your characters need a reason for doing what they do. As the story progresses, your characters can grow and change based on what happens in the story. By the time the story ends, one of 4 things usually happens to them.

  1. Your characters don’t change. They end up with the same personality and same motivation.
  2. Your characters do change. They may have the same personality, but their motivation has changed.
  3. Your characters end up with a totally different personality and but have the same motivation.
  4. Your characters have a different personality and motivation.

Dialogue

Dialogue is obvious. It’s what your characters say, right? Well, yes. However, dialogue done wrong can drag your story. So avoid dialogue that repeats itself, and is stiff or stilted. Also, try not to over-use your tags. Even simple tags like “said,” or “asked” can get boring if used too often. That doesn’t mean you want to vary your dialogue tags by using “he stalked,” or “he yelled,” or something different every time you say something. This just means you use only the tags you need to use. Keep it sparse and appropriate.

Make sure you use period-appropriate dialogue for historical stories. Know your history and use the correct terms. If your character weaves tapestries, make sure you know all the names for everything involved with making tapestries. Using incorrect words and terms can irritate readers if they happen to know the subject better than you. 

This also means that your characters can speak differently from each other. Age, education, personality, attitude and region can all impact the things your characters say. But try not to go overboard with dialect. If your readers have to try to figure out what your characters are saying because you phonetically spelled out their accent–that’s bad.

Plot and Conflict

Plot is what your character wants and everything that stands in their way.

Conflict is the angst, danger and emotions of the resistance. Conflict drives the plot forward.

It’s important not to lose momentum. If your readers get board, they could put down your book. That’s bad–we want them to be glued to the pages. This means you need to constantly build tension. Some ways for doing this include:

  • strong verbs
  • effectively interwoven backstory
  • make the readers want something to happen/want something to stop happen
  • switch point of view to a different character
  • put the characters in a time crunch or have them misunderstand each other

Your character’s motivation plays a part in the plot. What do they want and what are they willing to do to get it? What will they do if they are put in a situation out of their control?

Make sure to keep the stakes high. No matter what happens, it can always get worse. Your characters constantly will face death of some kind–physical death, death of self/beliefs/way of life.

Point of View

There are general three different points of view used to tell stories.

  1. Omniscient
  2. First Person
  3. Third Person

Not many people write in omniscient point of view nowadays. It’s kind of fallen out of popularity. Omniscient point of view is when the narrator pretends to be God. The narrator knows what everyone is thinking at any moment and how they feel. This narrator head hops, and this is generally thought to be bad. The problem with head hopping is it can easily confuse readers. Wait, weren’t we in someone else’s head just a while ago? Writing from an omniscient point of view can be done well, but it takes practice.

First person point of view takes place in the head of a single person. Everything is written using “I did this or that.” We see through his eyes and we only know what he knows. We have only one narrator, and that is, “I.”

The biggest difference between first and third person point of view are the pronouns. “He or she did this or that.” We still only see through one person’s eyes at a time and we still only know what they know. Think of it like a camera. Third person is a second skin the readers put on, and the story carries them along for the ride. Readers get to climb into the character and experience the world through their eyes.

With third person, writers need to be careful not to head hop. Try using only one point of view per scene, and only use the character that tells the scene the best.


 

Did these tips help? Feel free to leave a comment below!

Posted in book critique, writing

My new favorite author this week: Catherine Asaro

catherine asaroThis week, I went to the local library and found a new favorite author.

Her name is Catherine Asaro, and she’s written multiple sci-fi and fantasy books. I have just finished reading her Lost Continent series, and I have to say, I’m sorry to see them go. She created a fabulous, wonderful story world for her characters to play around in. Her books kept me up all night because I had to know what happened next. The romance portions of the stories were clean and some of the best I’ve read in a while.

If I had my way, I’d do nothing but read them all day. Alas, someone has to clean the house. Unfortunately.