Sunday Write-Up – September 2015

Sunday Write Up Header

It’s the last Sunday of September and so we’re back with another write-up challenge for anyone feeling they want to give their creative legs a stretch. Slight twist this month because I found this fantastic image on Pinterest by David Vandre… https://1x.com/photo/5981/all:user:1618

When I saw it, I just thought “that road is going somewhere” and figured if we use it for our inspiration this week, instead of the usual set of words, we might find some wonderful destinations somewhere along it.

So, for this month write your piece, short story, poem, etc. based on this image, whatever you want, whatever comes to mind… Post your piece on your blog as normal and put a link to it in the comments below so that we can check out what everyone writes.

Tony’s Writing Tips: Ignore that Elephant in the corner

Adam yawned and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, blearily taking in the empty place at the breakfast table. “Morning, mum. Where’s dad? Did he leave for work already?”

His mum didn’t turn away from the eggs she was scrambling. “We had an argument last night, so after he fell asleep, I shot him.”

Adam yawned again. “Extra butter in those eggs?”

“Of course.”

Adam poured himself some juice. “Is this orange? Did they change the ingredients?”

This silly piece of writing is an example of what writers call “The Elephant in the Room”.

Elephants, are of course, very hard to ignore. Unless your characters are wearing blinkers or earmuffs, having someone throw something major into your story and then not have anyone react to it is generally not a good idea.

Your character got up last night and shot someone, and all you want to know is if there’s extra butter with those scrambled eggs. At which point, your readers will start to wonder what the gubbins are you talking about, and why aren’t you talking about what’s really going on here.

Think of the facet of your story as a spotlight aimed at a darkened stage. There it is, shining away on the box on a table. The thing you want your characters to talk about is in that box – why Adam’s mother shot his father. And what are you doing? Shining your spotlight wayyyy over there, talking about scrambled eggs. Why do we care about scrambled eggs? We keep looking back at the box, no matter how hard you don’t want us to.

The other side of this is where magic and misdirection comes in. When you dim the lights to shine it on the eggs, we don’t see the stagehands swooping away the box and bringing the elephant on stage until the lights come back up – in my example, perhaps Adam pulls his own gun while we look away. Then we want the characters to talk about something else, while we do some magic in the dark.

But, the thing with “EITR” is that this misdirection is never given to a reveal. In my example, no one would ever mention the shooting again. If you cut away to focus on something else, fair enough; but remember to cut back to what your readers are thinking about:

Adam yawned and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, blearily taking in the empty place at the breakfast table. “Morning, mum. Where’s dad? Did he leave for work already?”

His mum didn’t turn away from the eggs she was scrambling. “We had an argument last night, so after he fell asleep, I shot him.”

Adam yawned again. “Extra butter in those eggs?”

“Of course.”

He poured himself some juice. “So you shot dad, huh? About time.”

“I thought so too.”

If you don’t do this, you’ll have a pachyderm of problems on your hands.

Tony’s thoughts…Why your story needs a McGuffin

I was working on “Book Five” this week, and there was a section that was bothering me – I needed a character to be kidnapped, but couldn’t figure out a logical way of doing it. After I solved the problem (That’s the great thing about writing – I get to kidnap people and no one calls the cops!), it occurred to me that the character is a McGuffin.

A wha? What’s a McGuffin? You might ask.

A McGuffin is something in a story that is important to the characters, but is otherwise irrelevant to the plot, and is (In most cases) completely interchangeable with something else.

You with me? No? Okay.

Here’s an example. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Ark of the Covenant is a McGuffin. Change it from “The Ark” to “The Necklace”, and the plot of the film doesn’t change. Change it a “The Crystal Skull” and the plot is the same. Change it to “The Sandwich” and the plot is the same.
Bear in mind, a McGuffin can also be something abstract, like power or money – it doesn’t have to be a physical object.

The McGuffin drives the story forward, but its nature isn’t important. Alfred Hitchcock was a master of these. He said, “In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.”
George Lucas thinks the McGuffin should be something the reader-viewer cares about. Sometimes it’s not obvious what the McGuffin is either; Lucas says the McGuffin in Star Wars is R2-D2 – the thing that all the characters are chasing or protecting, in other words.

If anyone out there has read my own book Taken, the McGuffin is the character Sacmis – Amon, my main character, spends most of the book trying to find out who she is, and by the time he finds out, it’s irrelevant; he’s discovered other things about his world that means he doesn’t need to know. But his need to discover who she is what drives him forward.

The McGuffin also ties into something fundamental about characters in stories: They have to want something – a character who doesn’t want something shouldn’t be there. A sandwich, a crystal skull, a necklace. Or a Lost Ark of the Covenant. That will be your McGuffin.

In other words, at the centre of your story is an object, or an idea, something that everything else spins around, but is almost completely interchangeable. The man who craves power could as easily be the man who craves money.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’m off to make myself a sandwich.

Does your story have a good McGuffin? Comments below!

Writing 101…Anatomy of a Scene

Words are the stock and trade of every writer, but some authors get too caught up in their own words. When you’re writing out a scene involving any sort of character action at all — even when it’s talking — you also have to work out the logistics. If you can’t put yourself inside of every scene and picture exactly what’s happening, you’ve got a real problem.

 


Get Back Inside the Box

The environment the characters live in is just as important as the characters themselves. Your characters are only extraordinary or special when compared to everything else around them. How they move is just as relevant as how they think. That’s why you’ve got to think about your books three-dimensionally, not just the way they read on the page.

Just about every room in the world is shaped like a box. Some boxes are bigger than others, some substantially so. Some are elongated so they’re more rectangular in shape. Some are enclosed with walls made of plaster, others with windows of glass. Put yourself inside a room with your characters. In that room, you’re the only thing that doesn’t take up space.

Envision each scene as you write them, and see yourself and your characters inside that box together. In most cases they will be standard human beings who must stand upon the ground, so remember that. Is there also furniture in this room? Maybe they’re going to have to move around it to get to one side of the room or the other. Are there other people in this room? Where are they standing? What needs to happen so that the characters may complete the actions the scene requires?

You’ve always got to think about their actions. If you have two characters who are supposed to be talking at a party, don’t have them standing and shouting across the room at each other. Don’t allow me to picture it playing out this way. Explain to me where they’re at in relation to the rest of the party. Are they in a corner, by a window? By the buffet table, off to the side? Maybe they stepped out onto the balcony, or into a back room.

If you can’t picture it as it’s happening, you’ve got to change the scene until you canpicture it. That’s the only way I’m going to be able to picture it as the reader, and I want to picture every single scene.

 

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This post originally featured on Jade Varden’s author blog in 2012.

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Author Jade Varden is a regular guest contributor on Aside From Writing. The Writing 101 features originate from her own blog  at http://jadevarden.blogspot.co.uk where you can see more of her thoughts on writing, as well as her own books. Her debut novel Justice and sequel The Tower are available now! Read our review of Justice here.

Tony’s Thoughts: My writing playlist…and why

Playing music when I write doesn’t always work for me. My home and my “office” are pretty quiet most of the time, apart from – to quote Belinda Carlisle – the sound of kids on the street outside.

So when I listen to music when I write, it isn’t necessarily because it’s something I want to hear anywhere else. It’s more like it’s another barrier between me and the outside world, another way of getting through the hole in the page where I write without distraction. Earphones and an MP3 player are essential…I don’t want anything to distract me once I’m in there, don’t want to pop back out of the document I’m working on and fiddle with my computer’s media player.

In a way, I can listen to anything…because there comes a point when I’m listening to it and not consciously hearing it; tracks will zip by on my MP3 and I won’t even notice when one starts and one ends until the end of the playlist.

Having said that, if I stick on Beethoven’s Ninth symphony and I’m still writing at the end of it, that’s a solid piece of work; that sucker’s 78 minutes long. I sometimes air compose towards the end, something I always do when I come across The William Tell Overture. It’s too catchy not to. (Trivia of the day: A recording of Beethoven’s Ninth was chosen as the run length of a CD).

Anyway, I have things on my MP3 I never listen to other than when I’m writing. Ten symphonies by Joseph Haydn, and one by his son Michael. Four Beethoven symphonies and 1st and 2nd piano concertos, tons of Mozart. I’ve been getting into some Salieri as well.

I tend to prefer longer pieces of classical when I’m writing, but I have some soft rock on there as well – some Belinda Carlisle (My wife pointed me towards The Go-Gos, and I’ve been having a blast with them), some Bryan Adams. A whole playlist of “Late 20th Century”, 80s and 90s stuff. A long list of 50s and 60s, and The Beatles.

I think the thing for my MP3 is familiarity. I’m listening while I write because the music is familiar to me and I don’t have to focus on it. I’ve heard it a thousand times before, so it doesn’t have any surprises. There’s stuff on there I listen to when I’m not writing, but most of it…most of it is the equivalent of white noise.

And sometimes I even have to turn that off because it’s simply too distracting, and sometimes it’s too easy to get distracted rather than writing – I spent a good few hours on Saturday playing with my playlists rather than writing, for instance. I wrote my last three books without a soundtrack, but I did stick it on when I went back to editing. Book Five feels like a soundtrack novel, and so far it is. It’s early days yet.

I know some people do it for the rhythms, assigning a piece of music to each character, and that sounds like fun and something I wish I could do. You’re a better multitasker than I am if you can focus that well. For me, it’s another wall between the world and the page, and sometimes you need all the walls between you and the world outside, so you can get into the rabbit hole and fall forever.

Tony’s Thinking…Making a World from Scratch

Whenever I write a story – any story, short or otherwise – the first thing I have to do is make a world for the characters to live in. It’s perhaps the easiest part of the process, but still one which needs some thinking over before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

For a start, it’s important to think logically and sensibly about the world your character is going to find themselves in, and to adapt either your characters or your world to suit your story. If your character is in a wheelchair for example, you’re going to need some way of getting them upstairs without breaking up the story, or else confine them to one floor.

Let’s take a solid example: The haunted house. And by that, I also mean the haunted town (See Stephen King’s IT for example) or even the haunted spaceship (which is essentially the plot of Alien).

Let’s walk through those examples and see what we can do with the worlds they need.

So your character – let’s call him Joe – has found themselves in your haunted house. You want Joe to stay there, at least until the story is finished…or until Joe is…

First question about this world: Why doesn’t Joe simply leave?

I know if I was in a haunted house, logically, sensibly, I’d head for a door. But I need some walls for the story…can’t have Joe wandering off without finishing what I’ve got him here for!

The door is locked? Fine. What about a window? Bars across them?

Hmm…okay. Now I’ve got Joe looking round the little haunted house I’ve just made and interacting with it.

Can he smash the glass and shout through the window for help? No, the house is on an island. Now I’m expanding the house to the local area around it.

Can he use his cell phone to call for help? Flat battery. No signal.

The point is, whatever Joe chooses to do at this point, the little world I’ve made won’t let him until he finishes the story. Joe is going to get increasingly desperate to get out, and at some point in his wandering through the haunted house, he’s going to meet the bogeyman and one of them won’t make it out alive.

In Stephen King’s IT, he has the main characters trapped by the fact that they’re children, and only children can see the Big Bad. Where else could they go? They can’t leave exactly leave town at the age of twelve. In Alien, the crew of the spaceship are trapped inside a literal vacuum of space while the monster stalks them.

And walls don’t always have to be physical. Joe could hear his little sister screaming upstairs, and there’s no way he’s going to walk away from that. Even if he gets out of the house, he’s going to go right back in there and rescue her like a good brother.

This is a simple example, but you can hopefully see how the world has adapted as I’ve needed it to. A character who can easily walk out of a story isn’t going to make an interesting read.

So when you create a story, think about how the world you create will shape that story, and think – logically and sensibly, no matter what the genre – how you can keep your characters there until the end. Keep bouncing them against the walls you’ve made for them until they break through.

Writing 101…How to Get Reviews

We already discussed writing reviews, and now it’s time for a topic that might be even more important to indie writers: getting reviews. Be willing to devote time to it, because reviews will help you as a writer in multiple ways.
How to Get Reviews
I feel confident in saying all indie writers want to get reviews from readers. Good reviews can add a certain appeal to your book, and they make it plain to book shoppers that someone, someday, read your book and felt strongly enough about it to write a review. People want what other people like; that’s just human nature. Having reviews can increase your sales and make your book look more interesting to readers. Now, all you’ve got to do is go out and get some.
  • Publish your book. If you want to get reviews, it helps to publish your book in multiple places. If you’re using Amazon’s KDP Select program, you actually don’t have this option — but you can still list your book at Goodreads. A social media site devoted to book readers, Goodreads can be a wonderful source of reviews for your work. The more places you can list your book, the more people will find it — and that means more reviews.
  • Find reviewers. I know, easier said than done. But once you know how to find reviewers, you’ll always have the skill — which is good, because you’ll need it again and again. The indie writer’s greatest resource is book blogs. Use your favorite search engine, and start seeking them out. There are lots of different ways to search. Look for blogs that cater to indie writers, blogs that cater to books within your genre, and blogs that discuss books and book reviews in general. Make a list of bookmarks for all the viable-looking blogs you find, and search their resource pages to find links to other book blogs.
  • Ask properly. Once you find potential book reviewers, don’t just flood them with free books and emails. Take the time to look around the blog and read some of the reviews. Look at the review policy to make sure your book meets all the right criteria. Then, and only then, write a brief email to the book reviewer. Introduce yourself and your book in one sentence or less. When asking for the review, tell the reviewer why you want them to review your work. Does it fit in with the other books on their blog? Do you like something about this reviewer’s specific style? Be succinct. Close the email with the blurb for your book, your relevant links and any other brief information you would like to include. Do not send them a free book; wait for them to ask you if they are interested.
  • Promote it. If you’re looking for reviews and reviewers, say so. Tweet about it, blog about it, announce it on Facebook. You can’t possibly find every available reviewer through an Internet search, and you never know who’s out there looking for new reading material.
  • Encourage it. Want readers to review your book? Tell them so. Include an “About the Author” at the end of your book, and invite readers to share their opinion of your work by reviewing it. Some readers simply don’t think of giving reviews. Why can’t you be the one to put the thought in their heads?
Trading Reviews
My own personal beliefs on reviews have evolved — quickly, I might add. I have a lot of thoughts on review trades that others don’t agree with, but to each their own. My opinion on the subject of trading reviews is this: don’t do it. I’m going to tell you why.
Indie writers are exactly like traditional writers in every single respect, without all the polish. Some indie writers are fantastic, with a strong command of editing skills, grammar and punctuation. But some indie writers areunbelievably bad at same. The moment you agree to a review trade with an indie that you don’t know and never have read, you’re more or less jumping off a cliff. Will you land on a pillowy-soft, fantastic book that cradles you gently in its pages…or into a pile of shite?
You have no way of knowing, and therein lies the problem with review trades. Here’s a review rule I live by: don’t ever commit. No one should have to clench their jaw, screw their courage to the sticking place and forcethemselves to waste time reading a book they positively hate in every single way. I’ve been there, and it’s not fun. You do a review trade, you commit, you open the door up for regret and eye-rolling that could last for days, even weeks. You can attempt to save yourself some pain by reading samples, working with only trusted indies and sticking to strict guidelines (I, for example, will not read your book if it isn’t justified the right way. No more exceptions).
Paying for Reviews
Lots of writers have lots of strong opinions about paid reviews. One of the more well-known is Kirkus, who by my book charges exorbitant and astronomical rates for their reviews. But a Kirkus review does carry a certain cachet, and some indie authors may have plenty of money to spend. Every business and every brand name is expected to spend money on marketing, and no indie can ever get the whole thing done completely for free (because, at the very least, you’ll have to pay for a copyright). So if you want to spend your money on reviews, spend it on reviews. It is, after all, your money.
Bad Reviews?
There are no bad reviews if you’re an indie writer. First of all, no matter what the review says you should sit back and bask in the glow of your computer screen regardless of anything. Why? Because you just moved someone with your writing — and isn’t that what you wanted? You actually motivated someone to write down their thoughts, you got them thinking, and you wrote something they remembered long enough to sign onto a website, at least. In today’s world, that’s no small achievement.
Second of all, any advice you get from any reader is valuable. Take every single comment seriously, no matter how it stings, because this one reader could be thinking something similar to dozens of other readers. You want to know what all your readers think, but in lieu of hunting them through cyberspace you’ve got to rely on the ones who feel strongly enough to comment. If you see a negative comment, think of it as a challenge. Here’s something you can improve upon in this book, or the next book, or tomorrow when you sit down to write a new chapter.

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This post originally featured on Jade Varden’s author blog on 29th May 2012.

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Author Jade Varden is a regular guest contributor on Aside From Writing. The Writing 101 features originate from her own blog  at http://jadevarden.blogspot.co.uk where you can see more of her thoughts on writing, as well as her own books. Her debut novel Justice and sequel The Tower are available now! Read our review of Justice here.