The Inner Dialogue: A Method for Figuring Out Your Stories

So if you didn’t hear, a novel I’ve been working on since college is getting published, and I’ve been working with a professional editor to make sure that the story is the best it can be before publication. During the revision process, we agreed that the number of flashbacks in the story were actually getting in the way of the story, so I should nix them. Unfortunately, that meant a third of the book went out the window, and another third that relied on that first third had to go as well.

Yeah, that got me depressed for a little while, and it took a lot for me to climb out of that funk. But I’m not here to talk about that. I’m actually here to talk about what happened with my story. Because you see, now that essentially the majority of the novel had been chucked out, I had to figure out where to go with the story. I couldn’t go the original direction of the story, because the flashbacks I’d tossed out were so essential to that direction.

Luckily, I was able to come up with a new direction for the story using a method that I’d never used before, which I call the inner dialogue. I can’t remember where I picked this method up,* but it’s stayed in the back of my mind for years, and I figured this was as good a situation as any to use it.

The inner dialogue is where you simulate a conversation with your inner writer (we all have one) when you’re struggling with what to do with a story. This could be trying to overcome writer’s block, figuring out why what a character is doing in the story feels wrong to you, having to rewrite a majority of the story, or any other issue you may be having during the writing/editing process of a story.

Here’s what you have to do:

Get a notebook and pen, or a typewriter and paper, or open up your preferred writing program on your computer. Imagine that you’re sitting down with your inner writer at a cafe, in your favorite writing spot, in a dark basement underneath a seedy dive bar, wherever you feel most comfortable talking to your inner writer. And have an honest conversation with them, writing down what you say and writing down what your inner writer says back. Think of it like texting, only you’re texting with a part of your mind you use for storytelling.

Bounce ideas off them, talk about the criticisms people have with the story, discuss what about the story is bugging you. Something about this method, writing out the problems and some possible situations to remedy this, allows your mind to open up and see new possibilities and solutions.

It might also make people wonder if you’re channeling spirits and doing automatic writing and/or if you’re having some sort of psychological crisis. But I think that’s a risk worth taking for finding what you need to make a story as good as it possibly can be.

Here’s an example conversation of me and my inner writer (who I’ve found to be very sassy during our conversations) discussing a hypothetical book idea I’ve been working on. My dialogue is written normally, while my inner writer uses bold letters:

So we’re doing this again, are we?

Yes, we are. Alright, let’s talk about my idea for a novel I’ve been working on. It centers on a group of cheerleaders.

I’m sure it does, you naughty dog.

Ha ha, very funny. Anyway, we’ve gone over what would happen to them once they arrive at the main setting of the story. But why does it happen? There’s always a catalyst that sets things up. Even if we don’t see it until the end of the story, there’s always something that starts the horror off.

Not always, baby boy. Remember The Haunting of Hill House? That really didn’t have a–no wait, that’s not right. The catalyst was that they entered the house for the investigation, and one of the subjects is mentally still very much a child, which puts her the most at risk to the house’s charms.

Yeah, catalysts in stories can be debatable or hard to pin down sometimes. But what could be a catalyst for this story. Why does this happen to these characters?

You were playing around with the idea of the setting being an illusion, weren’t you? Something created by the characters and the dark secrets in their minds. Can we do anything with that still? Maybe a variation?

You see where this is going, right? But it is very effective. I got ideas for this hypothetical novel just from doing an inner dialogue here in this blog post. And if doing it as a demonstration in this blog post can give me ideas for a novel, imagine what it can do for your work at home.

With that in mind, I just want to leave you with a couple of tips for doing this. You don’t have to use them, but I find them useful:

  • Be honest and write down everything. It may be a lot of work, but you’ll find it helpful to write down everything in these dialogues. Especially if you want to go back and see what you’ve come up with. Any thought, any idea, could prove useful, so write them down, even if your thoughts are kind of weird (mine certainly are).
  • Give your inner writer a voice. Like in your stories, the inner writer is also a character, even if they only exist inside you. That being said, you’ll want to give them a voice, motivations, everything you’d give a normal character. That way, they can speak to you just like any other character, and make the dialogue that much more effective.
    It also helps to give the inner writer’s dialogue some distinguishing characteristic, so it doesn’t get jumbled up with your own. A different font, italics, as long as it helps you differentiate, it’s all good.
  • Mark the dates and times of the dialogues. Often these dialogues can last a while. Mine lasted two weeks while I was trying to find a new direction. So mark the date and times you had these dialogues in the document you’re using. You’ll find it very helpful for later.

Nobody wants to find out a story is flawed or that they can’t figure out how to fix its problems. But there are a variety of methods to overcome these issues. Perhaps the inner dialogue is a good one for you, and will help you write, edit and publish your best work. You just have to sit down, and commit to talking to yourself for a little while. You never know what you’ll unlock.

*For some reason I think it might have something to do with Stephen King, but I think I’d remember if I came across this method in a King novel. If you have any idea where it came from, let me know in the comments. I’d like to give a proper acknowledgement to whoever or wherever I got the inner dialogue.

Lengthening Your Story

I know it’s about three months too late to say this, but Happy New Year, everyone!

Now, to the main topic: has anyone ever told you your story, one which you might have worked months on and is already tens of thousands of words long, is good, but needs to be longer? I have: back in my senior year of college, I had written a novel called Rose for my senior thesis. Near the end of my last semester, I met with my thesis advisor to discuss the novel one more time (at that point in its second draft). We talked about a number of qualities with the novel, its strengths and weaknesses, and where I could go with  the next draft. One of the most memorable suggestions? Make it twice as long as it was already.*

At that time, the novel was about forty-thousand words long, so doubling it seemed like an impossible task. However, two years later I did somehow manage to add about that many words, and it actually did help the story. How did I accomplish this feat? Well, here are some of the steps I took to lengthen my story, which might be of some help to you if you ever find yourself in a similar situation.

1. Figure out if the story really does need lengthening. Every story, like every person, is unique. And some are meant to be shorter. If your story works at about seven-thousand words, don’t expand it to twenty-five thousand because you feel it won’t do well that short or to fit an anthology’s needs. Instead, think long and hard about whether the story itself would be better if longer. And if you’re not sure, ask for a second or third opinion. It wasn’t just my thesis advisor, but two other early readers from Ohio State who told me to make it longer, so that’s what I did. See if anyone in your writing circle can give you an objective opinion on the story and if it needs to be longer.

If you get a positive on that question, then here are some strategies you can try.

2. Try expanding a scene.  In two instances in Rose, there were parts where the protagonists remembers episodes in her life that had a lasting impact on her. In between the second and third draft, I felt that those scenes should have more happening in them in order to maximize their effectiveness. Sure enough, those scenes were made more powerful by going deeper into them and expanding the action.

And speaking of expanding:

3. Add a new chapter. This one, I’d treat as a sort of last resort. In Rose, it was necessary: I needed to reveal a ton of information to the reader, and couldn’t put that info into a previously-established chapter. A new chapter was necessary. So only write a new chapter if it is absolutely necessary, and if adding the new scenes or information can’t be done in any previous chapter.

4. Go deeper into a character’s character. Some characters might benefit from going deeper into their personalities or histories. Perhaps you can expand on what a character is thinking in a certain situation, showing us what thoughts lead to their actions. Or maybe you’ll want to go into why another character is very passionate about something, and relate it to something in their past. In Needful Things by Stephen King, one character is passionately against gambling. This is partly due to religious reasons, but later it’s revealed his father was an alcoholic gambler who abandoned the character’s family several times due to drinking and gambling debts. It’s an interesting reveal, and added depth to an otherwise stock character as well as a few more words.

5. Add a new character/expand a minor character’s role.  In the first and second drafts of Rose, I mentioned two characters who had a big impact on the antagonist. However, they’re only mentioned by other characters and never actually seen. In the third draft, I not only added scenes featuring these two characters, but created a third character who also had a big impact on the antagonist. Doing so added a new level of depth to the antagonist, which my beta readers loved.

6. Add a new element or two to the story. I did not do this with Rose, but it’s still a legitimate strategy. For example, in 2007 an anime adaptation of Romeo and Juliet aired in Japan and later was released internationally.  It was twenty-four episodes, and part of the reason an anime based on a two-hour play was able to be that long is because they set the anime in a fantasy universe complete with flying horses, a rebel army, and magic trees (I haven’t seen it yet, so I have no idea if that works, but apparently a lot of people like it, so I guess it worked for some people).

You can do something similar with your own stories, though it doesn’t have to be so dramatic as changing the entire setting and genre of the story. What would happen if you added drag racing to your story about lovers from different social classes? Or what if your protagonist is given a disability that they must overcome along with whatever obstacle faces them in the story? The only limits are your imagination, and you can create some interesting new scenarios when you add new elements to the story.

 

Not all stories need to be longer than they already are. But in the event that they need to be, there are several ways to go about doing that. As long as you do it well and it’s not shoehorned in awkwardly, anything you add can only add to the story. Both in word count and in story quality.

What tips do you have for expanding a story? Have you ever had to make a story longer? How did it work out?

*At least, I think that’s what he said. It may have actually been add another ten or twenty thousand words, but I’m pretty sure he said double it. Not that it really matters, in the end.

What is the Mary Sue, and When Can You Actually Apply the Term to a Character

The original Mary Sue illustration, not just making fun of the character, but the stereotypical girl who might write Mary Sue stories. *shiver*

If you’ve been around the fiction or Internet scenes awhile, you’ve probably heard the term “Mary Sue,” and wondered what it is. Sadly, there is a lot of misinformation about what the term actually means. Some people think it’s a super-powered, almost perfect character. Others think it’s a character meant to be an avatar for the author to go be heroic in their own story. Others think it’s a female character who’s a badass and has amazing skills. And a few people thought it was the name of a steamboat featured in a popular song (that’s the Proud Mary).

Except for the boat, all of those definitions are technically both right and wrong. Not only that, but the term Mary Sue actually carries some negative connotations, and the application of the term to a character, particularly a protagonist, can be seriously detrimental to a character and the story they feature in.

So what is a Mary Sue? Well, the term dates back to 1973, when author and editor Paula Smith wrote the satirical short story “A Trekkie’s Tale” for her sci-fi fan fiction magazine Menagerie. The story centered around a character named Mary Sue, a fifteen-and-a-half year old girl who says stuff like, “Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky,” and is the youngest lieutenant in the fleet. In the course of the four-paragraph story, both Kirk and Spock fall in love with her, the whole crew gets captured by androids, she tells Spock she’s half-Vulcan before freeing them, they all come down with a disease that Mary Sue is only slightly less-affected by, she nurses them back to health at the cost of her own life, and becomes an intergalactic heroine who is given all sorts of posthumous awards and tributes for “her beautiful youth and youthful beauty, intelligence, capability and all around niceness.”

As I said, the story was satirical, and was a parody of most fan fiction at the time, which was mainly the authors inserting themselves into their stories and having adventures that elevated them to the status of being more amazing than any other character or even the world itself. But that’s the essential issue with this sort of character: the entire story serves to show how awesome these characters are. The character just waltzes through life, universally admired by all and able to easily overcome any obstacle. Nothing ever goes wrong for them, and if something does happen to them–usually death–they are immediately celebrated for being an awesome hero.

The problem with this sort of character is that it’s boring. The story isn’t about immersing the reader in an interesting world or taking them on an incredible journey. The author has decided this character is the most important character of all, so they write the story to highlight their greatness at the expense of their actual story. Imagine if Harry Potter wasn’t about a likable boy–one who wishes he grew up in a loving household, is happy to be in a world full of magic and friends, struggles through homework like the rest of us, and is clearly uncomfortable with his destiny and his fame–but instead was a perfect wizard whose past is only touched upon, and breezes through everything, from classes to fighting Voldemort, with nary a bad thought or a frown to trouble him. Important features like the cool magical world, Horcruxes, or the messages of love and tolerance that define the story would be downgraded in importance or thrown away to focus on Harry, how cool he is, how smart he is, how adept at magic he is.

Sounds boring, right? There’s absolutely nothing about the character to identify with or any exciting conflicts to overcome. And the vast majority of people agree. In fact, after “A Trekkie’s Tale” came out, the story went the 70’s version of viral, making “Mary Sue” a term applied to characters who exist only to show off off how amazing they are at the sacrifice of great character development or world-building, and forever marking the trope as a sign of bad storytelling. Menagerie even put out a statement in 1976 stating they hated Mary Sues (as well as their male counterparts, Marty or Gary Sues). And the hate continues today, with the Sues being rejected by all literature lovers, whether familiar with the term or not.

And in that statement right there comes the issue that has grown from the identification of the Sue trope: the baseless accusation. A lot of people, whether through ignorance or maliciousness, have accused characters from all sorts of works of being Sues. Usually these characters are front and center in their stories, highly adept at a number of skills suited for their environment, and, because the trope was first defined with a female character, female. For example, Rey from The Force Awakens was accused by some of being a Mary Sue,  as she is a protagonist, skilled in scavenging and fighting, and is apparently a Force prodigy. However, as defined above, Rey does not fit the mold of the Sue: the story does not become a tool to highlight her greatness. Rey is a flawed character, with skills that make sense given her environment and a need for someplace to call home. And while she is Force-powerful, she’s not using it to easily defeat her enemies with a flip of her wrist like a Sue would. Clearly the shoe doesn’t fit.*

But that there’s the issue: the Sue label can be applied so easily to characters possessing certain traits, and because of that, some writers are afraid to write certain characters or even to write at all due to the stigma of the Sue label, which can turn away audiences if too many people start believing a character isa Sue. And this is especially bad for female leads. Paula Smith, the woman who first named the trope, once led a panel of women writers who all said they never write female leads, because every time they’ve tried the characters have been labeled Sues. And in researching this article, I found a Mary Sue “test” where, if you answered the first question as “Yes, the main character is female,” it’s automatically a Sue.

But this is not the Sue, and there’s only one test to define one: is the story written simply to show off how “amazing” a character is, rather than tell a story involving a likable character with an arc? If the answer is yes, that’s the sign of a Sue. That’s all you need to identify one, and that’s all you need to avoid writing one. Stick with telling a story about a character who isn’t perfect, but has room to grow through the events of the story. You can still insert yourself as a character (God knows I did it with my novel Snake), but treat your insert as you would any other protagonist, someone who has to struggle both inwardly and outwardly in order to accomplish their goal. The Sue label may still get hurled, regardless of the gender of the character, but at least you’ll know that the accusation has less sticking power than if you actually wrote a Sue into your story.

What’s your take on the Mary Sue trope? Did I miss anything in discussing it? How do you avoid the trope?

*Plus no one accuses Luke of being a Gary Sue, despite Mark Hamill himself stating the character is an author insert (Lucas = Luke S.), he’s great at piloting any sort of ship, and he’s proficient enough in the Force to blow up the Death Star barely two days after learning it exists.

Reestablishing a Writing Routine

We go through great changes in our lives. It’s frankly inevitable. In fact, I remember someone telling me once in high school that in a twenty-five year period, it was likely that we would change our city/town, home, job, education status, socioeconomic status, political party, religion, and/or a whole bunch of other stuff. And when that happens, writing routines established over time and perhaps uninterrupted for years, are suddenly thrown out the window. And then where are you?

A couple of months ago, I moved into a new apartment so I could start a new job after a job search that lasted several months. Now, prior to this move, I would’ve said to anyone who asked that I didn’t really have a writing routine, that I just wrote wherever I could. Well, that is kind of true, because I do tend to write whenever I can if it’s convenient for me. But after the move, I did realize I had a routine of sorts established, and that routine no longer existed.

You see, while I was job-hunting, I lived with my dad, and in the evenings, I would settle down on the couch downstairs in the living room and write or edit while I watched whatever show I liked was playing that evening (you can get a lot written during commercial breaks). This routine lasted from late October 2015 to the end of May 2016. And my God, did it work! I edited the same novel twice and wrote more than a few short stories and blog posts that way during the job search, and it kept me sane while I looked for employment.

However, after I got employed and I moved for work, a lot changed for me. Yeah, I had increased independence, a nice location near work with a grocery store, a Target, and a library very close to where I live, and the chance to be as eccentric as I wanted within the confines of my own home without anyone judging me. But I also did not have a cable package, a TV, or a couch (though that’ll change soon with one of those). So suddenly the routine I had, which I’d been using for months and which I’d been comfortable with, was about as useful as an alchemy textbook at football practice.

For a while, I tried just writing or editing as much as I could when I sat down in front of the computer. Sadly, that worked horribly. I was moving at a snail’s pace, getting through only a couple of pages a week. A chapter could take up a whole month! With work getting busier and busier for me, I was starting to worry if I’d ever get back to the level of productivity I enjoyed prior to the move and in college.

But then a friend of mine gave me a recommendation that I found very useful. She had recently joined a group on Facebook where members sign up each month to try and write 250 words a day, and it had helped her get back into a routine of writing fiction after a pretty lengthy hiatus. That got me thinking: I can’t write every day, some days there just isn’t enough time. But what if I just tried to write 250 words every time I sat down in front of the computer? It couldn’t hurt to try.

To my utter delight, it worked like a charm. The first time, I ended up writing a little over the minimum 250. The next time, I ended up writing over 700 words! And the third, I managed to get out over thirteen-hundred words! It was amazing. Somewhere between words 150 and 250, a switch would flip and the story would just start flowing out of me like a river. In this way, I managed to get out the outline for my NaNoWriMo project in about a week or so.

Once that experiment had proven successful, I wondered if I could do the something similar with editing. It would have to be slightly different though, because editing is editing. Sometimes all you have to do work on is changing a word or a punctuation mark, and word count doesn’t change that much, but sometimes you rewrite whole sections and the word count changes dramatically. I ended up going with editing at least three pages per session, and that worked as well. After I rewrote the beginning of a short story I’d been working on and off with for over a year, I managed to finish editing the rest within a week (it helped that on the last night I worked on it, I was doing everything I could to avoid the presidential debates and I only had twelve pages to go!). Clearly this new routine I’d been working with was doing its job.

Now, I’m not saying that you have to adopt this routine if your old routine becomes impossible to do, but I am saying you shouldn’t just throw yourself into work and expect magic to happen. That didn’t work for me, and I’m not so sure it’ll work for you. Instead, take baby steps. Try writing a little a day until you find something that works for you and you’re at a level of productivity that works for you. If you do that, then I think that whatever life throws your way, you’ll be able to get back into the swing of storytelling with little to no trouble.

Have you ever had to change your writing routine? What did you do and how did it work out?

How to Deal with Idea Fragments

Imagine JK Rowling never thought of Harry Potter (I know, scary thought, but bear with me), and that you just had the idea for a boy wizard. You recognize that the story could be good. Very good, in fact. The question is, what else do you include? What does your boy wizard do? What is his world like? What makes him special enough to follow around? Obviously in the coming months you’ll come up with Hogwarts and Voldemort and all the other relevant characters and details, but until then Harry’s not really an idea but an idea fragment.

Is there a difference? Yes there is, at least how I write. To me, an idea has a bit more meat on it, like a summary or a prompt. You got this, and you can move forward coming up with all the details based on this little information. Using the Harry Potter example:

Harry is a boy who finds out he’s a wizard, and that when he was a baby, he defeated the greatest Dark wizard of all time. He goes to Hogwarts School to learn magic, and there his destiny begins to emerge.

Now in idea fragment form:

Harry is a boy wizard. That’s all I got so far.

See the difference? It’s just part of a summary. You can’t move forward without knowing a bit more, without deciding what direction you plan to go with Harry. That’s an idea fragment. And we all have them from time to time. Heck, I’m struggling with more than a couple right now. I know that with a bit of development they could be great ideas for stories, but until I add a few more details, I can’t write them down on any of my idea lists. And that makes them annoyances that you work desperately to make into full-fledged ideas. Which can be maddeningly difficult sometimes.

So in order to aid you with these fragments while you have them, here are some tips to develop them into full ideas:

  • First, write them down. Nothing is more infuriating than an idea you forget before you can find some way to make sure you don’t forget it (which is why I keep several lists for ideas and thoughts on my stories). While I’ve found losing idea fragments just to be slightly annoying–as far as I’m concerned, it’s just going back into the sea of the subconscious, to bubble up gain someday and maybe as an idea–it’s still good to write them down so they don’t slip your mind. Writing information down has actually been shown to help commit it to memory, so you’re making sure you don’t forget these possible great ideas-to-be.
  • Don’t stress on trying to turn them into ideas. You can spend your time turning over the fragments in your head, trying to do so until you’re frustrated will not help you come up with an idea. If anything, it’ll just keep you up at night and ruin your mood in the morning. So if you start getting frustrated with a fragment, here’s what you should do:
  • Take a break and distract yourself. Watch some Netflix. Read a book, especially if it’s in a genre or on a subject you’re not entirely familiar with. Go hang out with friends and talk about anything but the fragments. Dive into work, or another writing project, or your family, or whatever. When you come back to it, you’ll be a little refreshed and maybe also armed with new information or experiences to add to your potential idea. And psychology also shows that distracting yourself while trying to solve a problem actually leads to ways to solving it (there’s an episode of The Big Bang Theory, “The Einstein Approximation”, that illustrates this very well). So distract yourself. You never know what you might find.
  • Use a generator site. Idea generator, random word generator, story prompt generator, story plot generator, whatever generator. Do a Google search, you’ll find plenty of them. Each varies in what sort or how many parameters they require, and what sort of prompts they give as a result, but if you’re really stuck with some fragments, one of these sites might really be able to help. The downside is that some of the suggestions they give can be really silly sometimes (I tried a horror-themed one, and it gave me some odd plot summaries), while others ask for so many parameters you’re like, “If I knew all this, why would I need to be on this site?” Also, some people may feel that these sites are cheating or really lame last resorts, but it only matters if you think that.

While working on this article, an idea fragment I’d been struggling with for about two weeks finally became an idea. It helped that I was listening to a Stephen King audio book and that I read an article about a recent police operation leading to a huge arrest, helping me to think of something for the characters I had in my head whom I had no idea what to do with. So while these fragments can be a source of frustration, eventually they can become great ideas.

What tips do you have for figuring out idea fragments?

Tips For Surviving NaNoWriMo

As we all know, National Novel Writing Month, better known as NaNoWriMo, is just around the corner (though considering it’s done all over the world these days, it might need a name change). If you are not familiar with the tradition, it’s basically that every year authors try to write a novel in the course of a single month, usually one that’s around fifty-thousand words, and always in November. Of the authors that choose to participate each year, some do it independently, while others do it through an international organization that can hook them up with other participating writers in their region and even let them know about local events centered on helping authors during the month.

I’m on the fence on whether or not I’ll be participating this year. I’ve three other books at various stages of editing and I have to decide if one of those books needs to be rewritten (if so, then I’m participating because that’s basically starting from scratch). Even so, I thought I’d serve the writing community and do my civic duty by posting some notes on how to survive and get through NaNoWriMo with all your fingers still attached to you and your sanity somewhat intact.

Because let’s face it, writing fifty-thousand words in thirty days? I don’t know about the rest of you, but normally that many words takes me six to eight months. Cramming all that work into a month, we need all the help and advice we can get.

So first off, don’t get stressed about the word count. To get fifty-thousand words written in thirty days, you’d have to write approximately 1,667 words, or about 6.7 pages per day.* I know for a lot of writers it’s difficult to get that much out in a single day. The thing to remember is not to feel upset if you can’t force yourself to get that many words out per day. Remember, all good stories take time, and there’s no prizes for meeting daily quotas (the NaNoWriMo organization hands out badges, but they’re like the ones from Audible, nice to have when you get them but they don’t make much of a difference after you get them) or getting the full fifty-thousand words written out besides bragging rights. Besides, if you have to force yourself to put out words when your heart is not in them or just to meet a quota, your first draft might not turn out so well.

That’s another thing: remember that this is a first draft. And a rushed one, too. So if you look at what you’ve written and wonder what the heck you were thinking, that’s a normal reaction to a first draft. They’re supposed to be full of errors and passages that make no sense to you upon the second read-through. It’s during that second read-through that you touch it up and get it closer to the gem that you know it’s going to be.

Now that we’ve gotten the tips that’ll keep you in a good frame of mind out of the way, let’s cover how we actually survive NaNoWriMo:

Prior to November, research and prepare. We’ve still got twenty-two days till NaNoWriMo kicks off. During that time, it might help for you to get an idea of what you’re working on, where it might be heading, and maybe learn a bit more about the subject matter you’re writing, especially if it’s a topic you don’t know very well (like a murder mystery in Tang China or a coming-of-age story set in an ROTC unit). Now I know a lot of you might like to write by the seat of your pants, but just doing a little bit of prep can be helpful, especially if it means you don’t have to stop midway through writing because you realized you don’t know a thing about car maintenance and you lose four days because you got a car maintenance manual and needed to cram all that info in.

It also helps to prepare so that you can make plans in case you have to stop writing for any reason. Whether you need to attend a wedding midway through the month or you have to put the metaphorical quill down because you have a Poli Sci exam coming up you need to study for, having a contingency plan in case that happens can work wonders.

Speaking of which, while it is important to get out as much writing as possible, make sure not to neglect your life just to write. Many of us have day jobs, school, families, friends, and a variety of other things that require our attention. While it is important to write and maybe give up a few social obligations or fun outings to work, don’t neglect the real world entirely. I find the real world can not only give me great ideas for stories, but also reenergize me so that when I sit down to write, I’m not restless and looking for a distraction or yearning to go out and see the latest horror movie or something.

And while you’re working so hard, remember to take care of your health. In some ways, NaNoWriMo is like the last three weeks of a college semester: you’ve got a ton of work to do, only so much time to do it, and you’re willing to get maybe four hours a night of sleep and eat ramen noodles three times a day if that’s what it takes to get through it on top. I’m advising against that. There are no consequences to not getting out the full fifty-thousand words, so your health shouldn’t be a consequence of trying to. Get plenty of sleep each night, eat healthy meals, and get some exercise too if you can, even if it’s just going for a walk. You’ll find you’ll have more energy for writing if you do, believe me.

It’s also healthy to take an occasional break. We all need time to recharge and let our brains focus. So if you feel approaching burnout or writer’s block, or if you can’t figure out where your story should go next, or if you’re just so tired of writing about a princess trying to cover up her father’s murder so she doesn’t have to marry against her will, then maybe a trip out to the movies or to the bar with your friends or some fun family time or an all-night Mario Kart tournament with your roommates might be what you need. Studies actually show that ideas come more easily to you if you’re distracted, so there’s even more reason to take a break right there.

And if you need a little motivation to keep you going, reward yourself for certain milestones. For every five-thousand words or so you put out, reward yourself with something fun. This could be a favorite dessert, watching Netflix for a little while, whatever you want. Give yourself something extra special when you reach fifty-thousand words and/or finish the book (I suggest some wine, some celebration music, and later a good movie with a friend). You’ll find it much easier to write if you have something to look forward to after all your hard work.

And let’s not forget to build a support network around yourself. The NaNoWriMo organization attempts to do this by putting you in touch with other participants in your area and with community events, but whether or not you decide to participate in these events, you should still have people around you encouraging and cheering you on. Friends, family, lovers, authors you’re friends with online or offline, they should all be there for you. I can’t tell you how much it means to me to have people cheering me on and willing to read my work every time I publish during the rest of the year. Imagine how motivating it’ll be when you know there’s a group of people standing behind you when you do the writing equivalent of a 5K.

Finally, take a long break when you’re done. Not just from writing so you can get your creative juices to recharge, but also take a break from whatever novel you were working on once you’re done. I always feel that a month or more between drafts allows for writers to come back to their first drafts with fresh eyes so they can see where they made mistakes in the first draft and correct them. If you start editing immediately after finishing the first draft, you can only see it as the baby you just poured so much time and energy into and miss quite a lot. Better to take a break and let it lie until you’re ready to look again.

I’d like to wrap it up here and wish everyone participating next month good luck. Whatever you do to make the month of November one of the most productive and crazy of the year, I hope you found these tips helpful and that you have fun trying to get a full novel out in thirty days.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo this year?

What tips do you have for getting through the month and writing as much as you can in so little time?

*That’s if you write like I do, which is Times New Roman, 12 point font, and double spaced on 8.5” x 11” paper. Otherwise it varies.

“Hey, That’s My Idea!”: When Works of Fiction are so Similar You Want to Sue

This morning an interesting story showed up on my Facebook feed: Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and director of the Avengers movies, was hit by a lawsuit over alleged copyright infringement. In the lawsuit, an author by the name of Peter Gallagher (not the actor) alleges that Joss Whedon and the film company Lionsgate, among others, stole the idea for the 2012 movie Cabin in the Woods from his own self-published novel The Little White Trip: A Night in the Pines, which he first put out in 2006. Apparently both the book and the movie have similar premises (spoiler alert!): a bunch of teens go hang out for the weekend in an old cabin, they’re attacked by monsters, and they find out they’re subjects in a horror-film scenario run by a strange organization or group. Gallagher also says that several of the characters in both works have similar names and personalities. No word yet on what the defendants in the case say or whether the lawsuit will actually go through or be thrown out of court (for the full story, click here).

Strangely enough, something similar happened to me last year. I was on Facebook and I saw on my news feed that a movie company that produces really interesting horror movies was getting ready to release a new film and had just uploaded its first trailer online. When I read the synopsis of the movie and saw the trailer, I was instantly reminded of a short story I wrote back in June 2013, one with an eerily similar premise and which I plan to expand into a novel when I get a chance. I will admit, the thought to sue did cross my mind.

But I didn’t. This was partly because I’d never published the short story. I’d sent it to a friend who recommended I expand it and I did speak of it one or two times on my blog, but beyond that it’s been languishing on the shelf until I feel it’s time to start expanding it. It’s a little too much to suppose that they somehow found a single post on my blog back in 2013 or maybe even hacked my flash drive and used that material to create their movie. That sounds more like a conspiracy theory or something.

Not only that, but I felt that what I was going for with my story set it apart enough from the movie in question that I didn’t need a lawsuit. And finally, I’m just finishing up my undergraduate degree. I have no time and none of the expenses for such a lawsuit, even if I was inclined for one.

But just because I didn’t feel that copyright infringement had happened here doesn’t mean it never happens. There are quite a few cases where judges have found that movie producers or book writers or TV showrunners have owed someone money over a possible infringement. Some ways to prevent yourself from being caught in either the plaintiff’s or defendant’s side include, of course, to seek out every copyright protection you can get. For example, with every book I publish I make sure to send it to the US Copyright Office first. I know, technically publication or sending it to myself in the mail is considered copyright enough, but it helps to have federal protection.

Another thing to do is, if you suspect that someone’s infringed on your copyright, that you do as much research as possible. See if you actually have something to worry about. Also remember that there are plenty of stories that have similarities (like Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down have similarities, for example), so keep that in mind while you research. It could turn out your work and the work you’re researching only has a few similarities, and the ones there are just the kind anyone could come up with.

But if there’s enough resemblance that you can’t pass it off as just a few coincidences, then perhaps you might want to see if a few more people see the resemblances. If they see them too, then maybe you should consider consulting a lawyer.

Of course, I am no lawyer and I’ve never had to worry about this. If anyone has experience with this subject, please let us know your story and tell us what happened. We’d love your feedback.

In the meantime, I’ll keep an eye on this Whedon-Gallagher story and see how it turns out. Because this could be our story. Anyone of us could go through this, as any one of us could have a copyright infringement lodged against our own properties simply to con us or someone could steal our works and sell them for their own profit. And we need to watch so we know how to fight it and keep it from happening to us.

Short Stories That Are Too Short

Last semester I took part in a creative-writing class of about seventeen people, including our instructor. This class taught me many things about writing and gave me several new insights into my craft as well as many new tools to write more compelling and interesting stories. It also gave me a few ideas for articles, such as this one:

My classmates and I each had to turn in three short stories during the semester (two original short stories and one edited story). A few times people turned in stories that were really short and just had the barebones of a story. There were numerous reasons for why one or another student would turn in stories like that, with very little meat to it if any. Usually it was something along the lines of having their deadline sneak up on them and rushing to get something written and printed before class (I remember one girl was actually stapling the typo-plagued copies of her story together in the first few minutes of class before she turned it in. She later said that she’d rushed to get the story done, and had spent the first hour or so just wondering what the first few words should be. We all laughed at that, mostly because we’d all been there at one point or another).

However while other students were pressed for time, one or two said they were afraid that if they wrote anything longer it would be too long! When we heard this, we often told the student that their fear of making the story too long had actually made it far too short.

I’ve always defined a short story as between a thousand and ten-thousand words. This leaves a lot of room to work with, even for authors such as myself who are better suited to more expansive works like novels. Yet a lot of authors fear that getting close to twenty-five hundred words is going too far, getting too long, crossing into a territory reserved only for longer projects. Why?

I think it might have something to do with magazines and getting published in them. Many magazines, especially ones that pay, have a maximum word-limit, usually around five-thousand words or so. This creates pressure on the author who wants to be published. They want a wonderful and engaging story but at the same time they’re hampered by the feeling that they can’t go over a certain word limit or they won’t get published in this or that magazine. Even self-published authors aren’t immune to this: many indie authors write stories and send them out to magazines, often to get people to read their work, along with maybe a desire for income and maybe a small wish to show the critics of self-publishing that we can get published in the same magazines as traditional published authors and still have quality work.

The thing is, a story is going to be the length it needs to be. You can’t help it. Twice I’ve thought up and even written short stories that turned out that they needed to novels. And even when a short story manages to stay a short story, I find that a story that needs to expand to four or five thousand words or more is going to expand that length. As much as you try, you won’t get it down to twenty-five hundred without sacrificing quality. At least, not very easily.

I usually end up writing short stories between four and five thousand words. In fact, I try to make sure they stay that length. I’ve tried for shorter but that usually doesn’t happen, and longer stories do sometimes happen, though they often get shorter when I start to edit. The thing is, these stories are going to be as long as they need to be and sometimes you have to accept that. If you want to write a story that’s shorter than what you usually write, do it more as an exercise, as a way to get better at saying something in less words than normal. Don’t feel like you have to make a story shorter, but just try and see if you can. And if you can’t, don’t feel disappointed about it. Just meant that story wasn’t meant to be that short.

And if you’re worried about getting published, there are plenty of magazines, anthologies, contests, and podcasts that accept longer short stories and even short novelettes. Just do your research, you’ll find them. Or don’t go looking for them at all, but try and put together a collection of short stories. You have full creative control then and can make your stories whatever length you desire.

Or perhaps short stories aren’t your thing. They’re certainly not my area of expertise, though that hasn’t stopped me from trying. Either way, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Plenty of authors don’t do short stories and they’re excellent. Just stick to your area of strength and see what amazing stuff you can do there.

But if you do endeavor to create amazing short stories, just remember not to let the length of your story become an inhibition and a drag rather than a tool for successful writing. As I and my classmates have learned, length is important, but it’s by far not the most important thing to keep in mind. That would be the story itself.

 

On an unrelated note, thanks to Ruth Ann Nordin for the new background on this site. I was kind of attached to the old one, but I like what’s here now. It’s warm and welcoming, if you ask me.

Writing a Series

A lot of authors write series. Some make all their money writing long series rather than stand-alone novels. A few are even paid by their publishing companies to keep writing series even after the story has gotten old and there are no new ideas or places for the characters to go (*cough* *cough* James Patterson and the Alex Cross books *cough*). But writing a series is a lot tougher than it looks. Rather than keeping a reader’s interest for about 300 pages, you have to keep it for several times that amount and over several books too.

While there is no one way to write a series (is there ever “one way” to go about anything in this business?), there are some tips and strategies that can make writing a series a bit easier. Here are some of mine, gleaned from years of writing various different series in my teens and publishing one of them once I got into college.

Decide who your main characters are and what sort of story you’re going to write with them. I feel that it’s important to nail down who your main characters are pretty early on, because they often end up influencing where the story goes through their actions. You don’t have to go into each character’s entire history at this early stage, but you should have an idea of who they are, what they like and dislike, maybe what sort of environment they grew up in, and what they want and what you from them in this series. That information will come in handy when you’re planning out the series.

Make a roadmap. When you have your characters (and if you’re writing this story in a world different from the one you and most of your readership live in, a general idea of this world), then you should plan out the series and what is going to happen. You don’t need to go into every single detail on what happens in each book, you can save that for when you write each individual book. Just have a general idea of what will happen in each book, how that might fit into a greater arc if you have one in mind, which characters you might introduce or kill off or whatever, etc. It’s kind of similar to outlining a novel, in a way (for tips on outlining, click here), only for several books. Creating a roadmap can also be helpful in keeping a record of what and when you need to research a subject and can allow you to keep notes of what’s happened in previous books in case you need to refer back to something for the current book.

Immerse your reader slowly. This is something I’ve learned over a long time, but it’s useful to remind some writers of it every now and then. Let’s say your story takes place in a fantasy or science-fiction universe and you’re the only one who knows the entirety of the world, its various pieces and factions and groups and aspects. You’ll have an urge to make sure that your reader is immediately caught up with everything, so that they know all there is to know about these worlds. I’m telling you now, resist that urge! Updating them about everything in this world of yours too early would be overloading them with information. They wouldn’t know what to do with it and they’d put down that first book before getting very far in it.

Immersing a reader in your world is like teaching a kid to swim.

The best way to go about introducing readers to this world is to imagine it like teaching a young child to swim. Naturally you don’t start with the deep end. What if your pupil drowned? Instead you start with the shallowest end of the pool. It’s good to start without overwhelming the kid, and they can get a sense and a working knowledge of how swimming works. Later you move them into deeper waters, teaching them new techniques and watching them adjust to the greater depth of the pool. As time goes on, your pupil moves deeper and deeper into the waters, learning new knowledge along the way, until they’re swimming fine in the deep end and able to handle all you’ve given them.

In a similar way you should treat the reader. Slowly take them in, giving them the bare minimum to get along in this world and how to live and maneuver through it. As time goes on, you’ll add more information and they’ll be better prepared to handle it all, so by the end of the series they’ll be able to handle all that information really well.

Keep a guidebook. This can also be helpful, especially for series in fantastical worlds. A guidebook (or whatever you want to call it) contains information on the many aspects of your world, from characters to places to objects to story points and everything in between. If you need to organize a very complicated world, a guidebook can be helpful. Or if even the world is very simple, having a guidebook could help you keep track of things. I recommend using some sort of 3-ring binder for your guidebook, so you can add more information as time goes on. Dividers will also be helpful, so get those and categorize entries as you need. Using a guidebook can also prevent any ret-conning that could annoy and upset your fans.

Writing a book, and writing a book series, is often like this.

Remember the bigger picture. This is always important in writing, but it is especially important in a series. Writing a series is like working with several hundred or even several thousand puzzle pieces, but you have to focus on both the puzzle as a whole as well as the smaller pieces. It’s not easy, keeping track of the smaller stuff as well as keeping aware of the whole arc of the series, but it’s something you’ll have to do if you want to successfully pull off a series.

Each book has a purpose. If your series has an overall story arc, then not only should each book tell an interesting story (or a segment of the larger story), but it should maybe serve a purpose. For example, the first Harry Potter novel introduced us to the Wizarding world, and to the boy we root for the whole series; Book 2 hinted at the existence of Horcruxes, explained the concept of Wizarding blood purity, and introduced other important elements that would later appear in the HP books; Book 3 gave more information on the night Harry’s parents died and their relationship with Snape, as well as introducing how Voldemort would come back to power; Book 4 brought back Voldemort in an elaborate plot as well as hinted at the denial the Ministry would be famous for in Book 5; and so on and so forth. You don’t have to, but it might be helpful to think of assigning your books a purpose in the overall story arc of the series.

What tips do you have for writing a series?

Creating Character Names

What’s in a name? Contrary to what William Shakespeare wrote in Romeo & Juliet, a name can say a lot about you. Certain names have certain associations or ideas linked to them. A character’s name can excite, terrify, or bore a reader (can you imagine Harry Potter or Sherlock Holmes sounding interesting if their names were Roger Wilkes or Hugh Liddell? I can’t). There’s a reason why parents obsess so much over a baby’s name. They know that, one way or another, the name they give their baby will have an effect on it. And as the parents of our characters, we authors go through a lot of work to decide on names for our characters.

Occasionally though, we end up stuck for a name. We can’t think of one, no matter how hard we try. And if it’s an important character, we can’t proceed until they have a name. So what do we do? I have some ideas on what to do in these situations:

1. Use a name dictionary. Plenty of bookstores carry books filled with the most popular baby names, as well as names you’ve never heard of and names you didn’t think could ever exist (ever hear of Grunka? Neither have I, but apparently it’s a girl’s name in Sweden). You can even find dictionaries for names that are sorted by region, by what years they were most in use, by sex, by culture, by just about anything you can think of. The possibilities are endless.

And if you need a striking last name, I’ve got just the thing: some universities have directories on their websites that allow students, faculty, and staff to find contact information much more easily (my wonderful Ohio State does, by the way). An unintended consequence of this is that it provides a great place for finding surnames for characters, especially since it’s a big school with students and teachers from every walk of life imaginable. Two characters from my upcoming novel Snake, Blake Harnist and Angela Murtz, got their family names right off of OSU’s directory. It’s also great for first names too (though I couldn’t find Grunka on there).

2. Look to history and literature. Ancient Greek history, the Bible, A Thousand and One Nights, the age of colonization, Chinese folktales, Elizabethan England, philosophers throughout the ages. Any one of these is a great source for a character name. You never know what interesting name you’ll find among them that could be just the perfect fit for a character. For example, one of the main characters from Snake, Allison Langland, got her last name from a contemporary of Shakespeare whom I read about in an English class back in 2012. The name fit everything I was looking for in Allison’s surname, and I ended up using it. And with these sources and so many more, there’s got to be some great names out there (just avoid using Oedipus if you can).

3. Look through a cemetery. As creepy as cemeteries can be, they make great places to find people’s names. JK Rowling said that she got the name of Gilderoy Lockhart partly from a gravestone. And you can find the most interesting names in a cemetery: Hamoud, Earps, Rosen, Kraczynski, MacBannon, Chang, Gupta, Owusu. And that’s just last names! Imagine what you can find with first names, especially in an age when some parents like to give their kids very unique names.

4. Name a character after someone you know or admire. The nicest thing an author can do for someone sometimes, besides dedicating a book to them or listing them in the acknowledgements section, is to name a character after them. It makes a great gift, and you can even model the character or make them a parody of the person being named. It can almost be like an inside joke between you two.

Just be careful whom you name your characters after: sometimes if you name a character after someone you know, they may feel entitled to tell you as the author what they think of “their character”. For example: “my character does what, exactly?” “My character would never say this or flirt with that sort of person!” “Why the heck is my character a ginger?”

5. Use a name you dislike. Granted, you hate the name and would at the very least hesitate before using it for a character. But in situations where the naming of a character is proving difficult, using a name you dislike might be worth it. For example, I dislike naming my characters Jack or John (no offense to anyone who is actually named Jack or John, it’s just that those names are used too much, so I tend not to use them). However if I was sutck on a name and I thought Jack or John might work with my character, I’d use it.

I would probably never use Bella though. Stephanie Meyer kind of ruined that name for me.

6. Derive a name from another language. In many languages, people’s names are the same or similar to words reflecting plants, animals, objects, events, or concepts. You could name a character after the Hebrew word for mystery (“Taloma”) or the Japanese word for island (“Shima”). You can also take names from dead languages or languages that aren’t used much anymore. What would be the Latin, ancient Egyptian, or Yiddish word for something you believe describes your character? You never know until you find out.

7. Just make up something new. I believe I said earlier that parents are starting to name their kids in very unique ways (“Apple”, “Brick”, “Bronx Mowgli”, and “Tripp” come first to my mind). You could make up something new and interesting for your character, especially in a fantasy or science fiction story. Use random syllables or sounds and see what comes together. I’m pretty sure that’s how they named most of the characters in Star Wars, anyway.

However you end up naming your characters though, it’s up to you to figure out what is the right name for them and yours alone. So remember to have fun with it and not get too worked up about it. If you dislike a character’s name after a while, you can always go back and change it if you want to. I’ve done that before, and I’m sure I’m not the first author to do so. Nor will I be the last, either.

Happy naming, everyone.