Thursday, September 4, 2014

My Favorite Planning Tools

I've spent a very long time figuring out how not to write a novel. Which means, along the way, I've figured out several ways to increase my odds of actually writing one. Here are my top six:

6. A Novel Idea

"A Novel Idea" is an app available for iPhones and iPads. It's one of the few reasons I hung on to my iPhone once I jumped ship for Androids (how I lived so long without Swype, I haven't a clue). It's very easy to use, lets you create multiple novels, lets you create crossover characters by attaching them to multiple novels, and it's very easy to manipulate. My Inked rewrites went from the poster board to this app to an Excel spreadsheet. It was easier to rearrange things on the app than on Excel, and I could plot on the go. Very useful thing. And the free version has everything you need, unless you want to switch between devices regularly, in which case the pro version will let you export.


You know those silly little bubble brainstorming maps you made in kindergarten through high school? Those were pretty cool, right? They let you figure out connections between things, and it was really easy to do. Problem was they work best on paper. It's not something you can really do with Word. But you can do it with this site, which is very user-friendly and allows you to manipulate your ideas to create connections between them. And you can't use up all the space in an area; you have an essentially unlimited amount of space in your "mind map" and can easily move the bubbles to make more room in a certain spot.

4. 101 Questions You Should Be Able To Answer About Your Character

Besides the character surveys I've already posted, this is my favorite by far. This questionnaire is in-depth, ranging from name and birthday to "describe yourself in three words". The questions are divided by topic, and they're all to be answered in your character's voice, which in case you haven't noticed is something I really like doing.

3. Complications Worksheet

Courtesy of one of my Camp NaNoWriMo cabin mates, the Complications Worksheet. It divides the book into four acts and presents questions regarding the beginning, middle, and end of each act. Answering these questions makes sure you can keep the tension level up in your story and that the middle doesn't sag.

2. The Three-Act, Eight-Sequence Structure

This was a freaking revelation for me. Talk all you want about the three-act structure; the division of each act into sequences makes it much easier to pace the novel. When I went to start structuring my Inked rewrites I took the manuscript and divided it into the sequences as I'd naturally written them. It was hugely helpful in showing me which sequences were too long, which too short, and which actually started or ended somewhere other than where I'd thought/planned for them to do.

1. The Structure Grid

I love index cards. I love that I can put totally blank index cards on a board and have it end up looking like a proper story structure. This is extremely useful for structuring, not least because it just looks pretty to have it all laid out. Having a structure so visible will let you see instantly where your sequences are too short or too long or where the tension level is too low or too high for a stretch at a time. I realized midway through plotting Inked that I'd introduced information in one scene that I'd accidentally used in a previous scene (oops!). Best of all, it was easy to fix that mistake. This is the only thing on this list that costs money to do, but it costs about $10 and most of that is the display board, which you get to use as many times as you want.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

My Favorite Character Questions

Somewhere between one and two years ago, I asked my followers on Tumblr to send me character questions. I was extremely frustrated with the surveys I was finding; they were either too basic or too vague. So I gave my followers this scenario:

You've just met someone, and you have five questions to decide what kind of relationship, if any, you're going to pursue with them. What do you ask?

Here are my favorites, which are now the first things I ask of my characters:

  • Name five things you are and five things you are not.
  • What do you consider the strongest force in the universe and why?
  • If you were the protagonist in a hero’s tale, where would your adventure take you?
  • If you found a magic lamp with a genie inside, what would you spend your three wishes on?
  • If you were going to fly to Neverland with Peter Pan, what would your happy thought be?
  • What is your favorite book?
  • What is your favorite music?
  • What do you do for fun?
  • What is art?
  • What is the meaning of life?
  • Do you believe in gods?
  • Do you believe in you?
  • Greatest fear, hope, pride, and shame?

Today's question: What's your favorite character development tool?

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The 30 Day Character Survey

I found this probably a couple years ago, but for the life of me I can't find the source. It seems to have been used and passed around plenty, but the original source seems to have been lost, and since it is a meme it might never have been known at all.

There are plenty of surveys in this 30-day vein, but they don't work so well for me, mainly because I already have those questions being asked by multiple different questionnaires. (Ask me how many questionnaires I've combined to make the one I use.) This one, however, I love, mostly because it's in the character's voice.

(Confession: I've never made it through all 30 days, but just reading the questions makes me think about my character.)

So here it is, my favorite 30-Day Character Survey:

01 – Introduce yourself, in great detail
02 – Your first love, in great detail
03 – Your parents, in great detail
04 – What you ate today, in great detail
05 – Your definition of love, in great detail
06 – Your day, in great detail
07 – Your best friend, in great detail
08 – A moment, in great detail
09 – Your beliefs, in great detail
10 – What you wore today, in great detail
11 – Your siblings, in great detail
12 – What’s in your bag, in great detail
13 – This week, in great detail
14 – What you wore today, in great detail
15 – Your dreams, in great detail
16 – Your first kiss, in great detail
17 – Your favorite memory, in great detail
18 – Your favorite birthday, in great detail
19 – Something you regret, in great detail
20 – This month, in great detail
21 – Another moment, in great detail
22 – Something that upsets you, in great detail
23 – Something that makes you feel better, in great detail
24 – Something that makes you cry, in great detail
25 – A first, in great detail
26 – Your fears, in great detail
27 – Your favorite place, in great detail
28 – Something that you miss, in great detail
29 – Your aspirations, in great detail
30 – One last moment, in great detail

Monday, September 1, 2014

RP vs Writing

My main Tumblr presence of late is in the roleplay community. No, not sexy roleplay (at least not for me); the best way I can say it is freeform collaborative storytelling. Each person picks a character and by putting your character with someone else's, you create all kinds of interesting things. I used to do this on LiveJournal and Dreamwidth, but Tumblr has an odd strength in that it's very difficult to change muses.

Tumblr, for those who don't know, is a blogging site sort of like if Twitter took away all its restrictions on character limit and post type. You follow people; you have a dash; you reply and reblog posts. But there's no significant word limit (it's upwards of a couple thousand words), and you can post either as text, chat, photo, link, video, audio, or quote. Also like Twitter, it's easy to change your URL/screen name, and because of the follow mechanism you can't easily reply to just anyone with just any muse (character). As a side effect, you're forced to focus on one muse at a time.

The difference between RP and writing is pretty significant, and cuts both ways. RP requires only that you understand one character, but it requires that you adapt that character to any situation. On LiveJournal, I too often got around this by picking the muse that had the reaction I wanted to write; on Tumblr, because it's difficult to change muses and reply to a conversation, I have to be able to handle one muse's reactions to anything that happens in a thread, or I can't reply.

RP is difficult in that respect, but again, you only have to have one muse's "voice" down pat. Writing, on the other hand, requires that you be able to juggle multiple characters' voices in one scene.

An RPer maintains a close-on third person POV in their head, watching for the most part through one person's eyes. A writer has to maintain an almost omniscient POV when writing, even if the only thing the reader will ever see is the POV of the narrator.

However, although writing requires significantly more investment in the characters, it's much more scripted. Even pantsers generally have some idea where they're going, or they know one scene they have to reach and write around it. Writers have the luxury of knowing (usually) where everyone will go and what they'll do ahead of time. Plotters like myself have this advantage far more than do pantsers, but pantsers have an advantage over RPers, who have no advance warning of what the other muse will do.

As such, sometimes I've had a muse both in a book and in RP. They require two very different skill sets, and allow me to go in-depth with the character at the same time that I build their world and their story. I know two people in my RP circle who do the same.

Today's question: When writing, how do you balance the limited viewpoint of your narrator with the omniscient viewpoint in your head? Or do you not have that viewpoint?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Gettin' Real With Rae: Advice For People Entering High School

I graduated high school five years ago, from a private college prep school, so YMMV, but here we go:

  1. High school is not the best four years of anyone’s life and if they say it is it’s because they stopped living after.
  2. You’re a teenager. Try on phases and labels and identities like they’re on clearance. Find the ones that fit.
  3. Labels can be helpful. If they’re helpful to you, use them; if they’re not, don’t.
  4. The friends you have now? Keep them.
  5. It’s easy to get behind and hard to catch up. Cut yourself off Tumblr and any other time sinks you have until you know how much time it takes you to do your homework and can plan your online time accordingly.
  6. Take advantage of any support systems your school has.
  7. Hold your head up and keep your back straight and shoulders back. Make eye contact. Smile. Bullies and predators target people who look afraid, and genuine friends are attracted to people who look confident.
  8. Never be afraid to talk to your teachers. They are there to help you learn.
  9. That ten minutes between classes isn’t enough time to get your homework done.
  10. Go to bed early. It’ll be hard, but getting up early when you’ve stayed up late is next to impossible.
  11. On that note, stick to a schedule, so your body gets used to falling asleep early and getting up early. Yes, that means even on the weekends your sleep schedule shouldn’t vary much in either direction.
  12. Find time for yourself. If you don’t have a minute to breathe and read or do a reply or two or watch your favorite show, you’re doing too much. Cut back.
  13. Everyone is actually not smoking/drinking/doing drugs/having sex. Maybe half, and that’s being generous. You are not under any obligation to do any of those things. You can find plenty of people in your school who aren’t either.
  14. In my experience, seniors who hit on freshman aren’t doing it because the freshman is “so mature” unless they’re talking physically.
  15. (Trigger warning) You’re entering the age range most at risk for depression and suicidal ideation/attempts, so take care of yourself, talk to the school counselor if you have one and need them, and talk to your parents about “mental health days”; they’re not the best option and they don’t work for everyone but for situational depression and anxiety, they can relieve the stressors for a day. And if you really need a day off and your parents won’t let you use mental health as a reason to stay home, sometimes you just get a really bad headache.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Underrated Books Part 2: The Alex Verus series by Benedict Jacka

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I love paranormal mysteries. I am also really, really picky. I like narrators that have strong voices and a healthy sense of humor; I like books that are well-crafted and worlds I could believe are real. And I love a good mystery.

Alex Verus satisfies all of these tastes better than anything else I've read. The top five reasons I love it:

5. The World

I can name one series off the top of my head that I put down because the world felt thin. I can name another one that I got very, very tired of the additions to the world; too quickly they started to feel like alterations. Alex Verus, on the other hand, lives in a world that is beautifully crafted and utterly believable. We learn more and more about this world as we go through the series, but it all fits together. Things that look like oversights in the first book turn out to be crucial to the plot of the third book. And I believe this world. It feels real, magic aside. The way people react to that magic plays a huge role in that belief; despite being mages and adepts, they all react in very human ways to the world around them.

4. The Serial Nature

I'm a big fan of serial stories, mainly because I really like characters growing and changing and that just doesn't happen in episodic series. Alex's world changes. His relationships with people change; his developing master/apprentice relationship with Luna is a major arc throughout the books. His backstory continues to be revealed at the same time that he changes in how he treats it and how he reacts in the present. And how the world reacts to him changes too, as he goes through the adventures of the books. From one book to the next, you're watching a slightly different batch of characters move through a slightly different world, because everything changes and progresses, and that to me makes for an exciting, dynamic series.

3. The Side Characters

I. Love. These. Characters. I love Sonder's history nerdery. I love Luna's growth regarding her curse. I love Arachne's everything (giant spider who designs clothes and chews Alex out for ruining them). I love Talisid's utter lack of subtlety, I love Deleo's progression, I love Shireen, I love Cinder's interactions with Alex, I love all of them. The only ones I don't love are the ones I would love to stab and those are the ones I'm supposed to hate so to be honest all the characters are perfect.

2. The Plots

I wish I could say more about the plots without spoiling it. I will say that they, like the world, are all utterly believable. They, like the world, are dynamic and interlink with each other. They are well-crafted, driven by all-too-human motives and mages, suspenseful, and pack a punch every time.

1. Alex Himself

Like I said, I'm very picky about narrative voice. There are series that people love that I just find the narrator boring. If you're going to write in first person, make sure the voice is one that I can stick with for hundreds of pages at a time.

Good news: I can stick with Alex for a thousand pages at a time. I read the entire series almost straight through; the last two I read in one day each. Alex has the kind of voice that I would like to be friends with. He makes me laugh about things that shouldn't be funny. He's brutally pragmatic (another thing I love in a character). He has a backstory that is neither forced nor overwhelmingly bleak. And he learns. Through the series he grows and changes and learns from his mistakes. He's easily one of my favorite fantasy narrators.

0: I'm really, really excited for Hidden

Okay, this isn't so much a reason why I love the series as a result of all the reasons above. Without spoiling anything, Chosen was a huge pivot point for Alex and his world, and I'm super excited to see how it plays out in Hidden.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Freedom to be Rejected

This Sunday I submitted my first piece for consideration in a paying market. Then I submitted it to another. The piece in question being speculative poetry, there's not a lot of markets for it, but two in one day isn't bad.

I had written this poem over a year ago and forgotten about it; it languished from then until this past week in a folder labeled "Starters" because at that time I apparently thought I would ever write that story in more detail. (Spoiler: I'm not.) When I found it, I realized I actually kind of liked it. So I worried over it for two days, tweaking the rhythm and redoing the ending until I was nervously confident about it, and then the friend who was looking it over for me gave the best advice: "The worst they can say is no, and you will be no worse off in any way than you are now."

For a perfectionist like me, that is a hugely liberating thing to hear. The thing is, I didn't write this for publication; I wrote it because it was fun and then I edited it for publication. So if I lose the time I spent editing... oh well. It doesn't hurt me at all. I've still got parents paying for my living expenses, a regular job hunt going, and more poetry markets to look into for this before I give up on it. And it's not like I'm hurting for ideas either; more and more I'm finding that things I had idea seeds for fit the criteria that various places want. I can rework some of my old things to fit other places' criteria.

Long story short: I'm very likely going to be rejected. And I'm pretty much fine with that. (But if I'm not, you can bet I'm going to be bragging about it on here.)

Monday, August 18, 2014

A Sharing Experiment

I have a fear of finishing. There, I said it.

I've spent almost twenty years now trying to write a complete thing to my satisfaction. At least ten of those years have been spent trying to write a complete novel to my satisfaction. And here's the thing about writing a novel: It takes a long, long time. It takes longer when you keep getting distracted. When it's more comfortable to plot something new and dream of someday. But eventually you run out of steam.

I spent quite some time taking to heart the advice that talking before the story is done is like opening the oven before the cake is baking. But when I do that, I don't have anyone's enthusiasm but my own fueling the story--and I'm fickle.

So this week I'm trying something. I'm going to share the first chapter of my rewrite of Inked with seven people. My mom is one; the aunt who wants to be my editor is another. I have friends on board to be persons three through five, and I expect I'll employ two teachers at my old school for six and seven.

But there's a caveat, so that this experiment doesn't just feed into my need to make things better. Each person will have the same instructions. First, I want to know only what they liked. I want to know that there is something worthy about this story so I don't start staring at it like it's a worthless pile of garbage. Second, they are to pester me for more. Incessantly, if possible. This will force me to keep writing and let it into other people's eyes before I'm 100% on it--because I'm never going to be 100% on it. I'm a perfectionist and I'm all too aware of my failings.

I will of course keep this blog updated with the results of this experiment--and I do expect people to keep me going on that promise too.

Has anyone else tried something like this? How do you do with sharing your story when it's still being edited vs hiding it until it shines?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Underrated Books Part 1: The Croak Trilogy by Gina D'Amico


Let me tell you a story. About a year ago, it was late at night and as I am wont to do, I got very melancholy. I was absorbed in my own thoughts--there was simply nothing else to pay attention to. I was reflecting on the fact that it had been so very long since I'd read something that grabbed me and didn't let go until the last page. I missed loving to read so very much.

Fortunately, I'd taken out Croak from the library. It was sitting on my shelf, waiting for me to decide that I was ready to read it. I picked it up, opened it, and didn't stop reading until I was done. The next day I went to the library and got Scorch, then had the library order Rogue when it came out.

The trilogy is the funniest thing I've ever read or seen about Death, and I'm including Christopher Moore's A Dirty Job in that. Gina Damico has crafted a world that I believe and love. She balances humor and drama fantastically. She has managed to make a teen romance that has all the awkward, fumbling parts as well as the adorable and even the steamy, all at once. The world both terrifies me and enthralls me. I adore Lex, and her character growth over the trilogy is stunning. At the end of the trilogy I was left with a feeling almost like grief, at the realization that there will not be any more of this story. That to me is the mark of a good book.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

That Dreaded Question: "What's it about?"

I get this question a fair amount. You mention you're writing/editing/plotting xyz and people ask "What's it about?" They mean to get you involved in a conversation. They mean to be encouraging and show interest and support in your passion. But there are a few reasons this doesn't really work for me.

3. It's Too Big

I know once I get something ready for submission I'll need to be able to hook people in under 250 words. I know I'll need to be able to say what it's about in two or three paragraphs. But when I'm writing, the truth is, there's just too much. I mostly write long fiction. You ask me about a short story and I can probably say what it is. You ask me about a novel in progress... not so much. My first question will be "Do you want that in terms of plot or theme?" and my second will be "How much time you got?"

2. The More I Talk, The Less I Write

This is a pretty big one. I've gotten out of the habit of sharing my work and talking about it while it's in progress (unless it's to share snippets with my writing group), because the more I talk about it the less I actually write it. I know from experience that once a piece of it is out in public, I grow progressively less likely to write the rest of it. So this question is actually counterproductive.

1. I Don't Know

When I started Voice it was called Diary of a Monster and it was about the things we do that hurt the people we love. When I finished the first draft I renamed it Price Tag and it was about the value of a life and the price worth paying for what we want. Now it's called Voice and it's about adapting to loss and grief. Inked has gone through a number of transformations as well, but in that case it's more to do with the characters and flow and less to do with the theme. Once again, eventually I'll need to know, but until it's done I really, really don't.

These are of course my personal thoughts. Does anyone honestly enjoy the question? Do you have other problems with this than I do?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Rae's Top 6 Petty Pet Peeves

I'm picky pertaining to the prose I peruse. Pursuant to my particular preferences, I ponder preferable phrasings pretty much perpetually.

To get away from the alliteration, these are the things I rewrite in my head, that I wish authors would stop doing:

6. "Synonyms" for Eyes

The reason "synonyms" is in scare quotes there is that most of the time they're not synonyms. If I never see the word "orbs" used to refer to eyes again, it will be too soon. And don't get me started on "hues," which I see far too often. There's nothing wrong with "eyes."

Related, I also have issues with flowery terms for colors. I like them once. Just once. I've seen "whiskey" used to refer to brown eyes. It's pretty. It conveys a particular shade. That's good. Using it every time you want to refer to the character's eyes is repetitive and grating.

5. "He thought"/"She saw"

There is no reason to put this or any other variation at the beginning of a sentence. Ninety-eight times out of a hundred you could get away with dropping it entirely. The remaining two are in very particular cases, and odds are yours isn't one of them. Say your sentences out loud. Say them with and without the first words. If need be, replaced "then he/she/I remembered" with "that reminded him/her/me that" and it'll work out just fine.

To go along with that...

4. "Quickly"/"Then"/"Suddenly"

Again, this really just weakens your sentence. I read once that there is no word less quick than quickly, no word less sudden than suddenly. It's unnecessary, it's cliche, and your reader will read your sudden development less suddenly because there's that extra word.

3. Clothing Descriptions

I really, really hate clothing descriptions. As far as I'm concerned there are only two times you need clothing descriptions:

  1. Introducing the character, if and only if their clothing indicates something significant about their character.
  2. If they are wearing something counter to their character and it sets off a reaction in your narrator.
Other than that, I really don't need to know what new cute dress your heroine is wearing, or what brand your villain's suit is. I don't care, and you're wasting precious words and bogging down your pacing to tell me this stuff instead of getting to the meat of the scene.

2. Purple in Place of Precise

I was once asked to critique someone's writing and I told them it sounded like they were trying to be clever. They got very annoyed and said that they weren't, that it was all to do with their character having a vast vocabulary. Well, here's the thing:

If I wished to demonstrate a vast vocabulary, rather than employing words that the thesaurus claims to be synonyms but that I myself have little or no familiarity with, I would endeavor to use those words which I know with certainty to mean what I wish while still conveying my message with more precision than more common words might achieve.

If I wanted to be purple, I would swirl my pen over the words, lovingly caress each sentence, pour my blood and tears into the words and let them sing.

Don't use words you're uncertain of when you want to be precise. Use words you know for a fact. Otherwise you will come off looking like you're trying to be clever and writerly and falling far short.

1. Funetik Aksents

In the book I'm reading, the author made the executive decision to write a New Orleans accent phonetically. Like the eyes peeve, this was fine the first time. The narrator said it normally, then translated it into the accent to indicate that the man was from NO. But then he continued to write everything the character said phonetically.

Please, please don't do this. It slows down your reader, it makes you hard to understand, you look like you're trying to be clever and you end up looking like a kid who's just learning to write. A much more effective way is to get the idioms right. When I write a character from the UK or Ireland, I won't spell things phonetically, but I will say "cock up" instead of "mess up" or "screw up," "daft" instead of "stupid," "wanker" instead of "son of a bitch," "mum" instead of "mom," use "pants" and "jumper" and "trainer" for their meanings in that area, etc. If I'm writing a Southerner, I will write "y'all," but I will not drop the "g" in verbs, and I will also add such phrases as "might could." New Yorkers will say "on line" instead of "in line." Essentially, learn the idioms of the accent, not the sound. Your reader will catch on to the accent just as quickly without having to slow down.