Saturday, May 26, 2012

Illustrating the World

Because I'm also an artist, I find that it can be very helpful to have visual stimulus when writing. So I draw a great deal when I'm writing. Usually character sketches, animal concepts, and the occasional building, scene, etc.

This is Charlotte, the protagonist for Rules of Engagement, the novel I'm currently working on/breaking word count barriers with. (I got to 84K words today!)

Charlotte is a soldier, spy, and lady who disguises herself as a man for much of the book. This conflict of self and personality was something I wanted to draw, so I did this half and half piece to get it out.

Obviously, drawing isn't something all writers do, so I advocate heartily for finding someone who does. Seeing visual representations of your ideas can be very helpful.

You don't have to stick with just character concepts either. Sometimes we need to firm up a creature concept, design or even just get a better handle on size. To that end I did a quick series of animal sketches a while back for a story that still mulling through my brain.

This is Toby, AKA, an American Runner. A giant land bird much like an ostrich or emu except with heavier bones and body mass and larger head, shorter neck and more pronounced defensive features.

I did a bit of research along the way while designing him, needless to say, and am overall pleased with the result. More importantly, I was able to firmly establish some roots for the world I was building.

You can really get into this sort of development with landscape drawings and even city layouts, blueprints and other schematics. I find visual representations very helpful in keeping track of all sorts of things. I make maps, draw out command structures and make family trees. I occasionally sketch out pivotal sequences and do rough comics for some sections.

If I'm uncertain about a decision, it can be really helpful. With Rules of Engagement, I've needed a lot of maps and charts. There are battle plans, regiment movements and all sorts  of things I have to work out, know and decide on. It's like being a general.

You are always the commander of the army that is your story, but sometimes, renegade soldiers can tear things in a new direction. We can cover that in My Characters are Taking Over!

Remember, it's not a matter of talent, if you feel you can't do justice to your concept, get out there and find someone you think can. When I get frustrated by a character, or feel out of my comfort zone, I get out and find someone who draws the things I need and commission them. (I have a few standby artists I keep going back to) Or, you know, hit up a few artistic friends.

Good luck, and don't be afraid to put pencil to paper and illustrate your world!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Writer's Block - Dealing

We've all had it. That moment of absolute frustration when nothing will come to us. It's like our brain is shut off. The characters stop cooperating, you don't know where the story is going and nothing you do seems to help.

Well, I don't really have that problem anymore. I'm not saying I don't have those moments. I do. But I've found ways of coping. When your writing becomes stagnant, IE, you hit a road block, it's most likely caused by a couple of different things.

Lack of ideas
Writer cave syndrome

Stress is the hardest thing to overcome. Our emotions greatly effect our productivity as writers. I can think of a couple months where it was all I could do to get up out of bed in the morning, but the one thing that got me up was that I knew I had a goal, I had a story to tell and that story was going to keep me moving. Everyone has to find a way to cope with stress. Whether it's yoga, a day out, a bath, whatever, you have to find a way to relax that works for you.

A lack of ideas is the easiest thing to overcome. You just need to get out there and absorb. Go to the library and read. Go see a new movie, watch TV, read a newspaper, talk to friends, play a game. You need to recharge that battery.

Writer cave syndrome. Do you find yourself hissing at sunlight? Have you drunk more caffeinated beverages in the last month than water? Is your room a mess? Does your desk look like a national disaster area? What is that furry thing growing out of the trashcan? And oh god, did that laundry just move on it's own? Yeah. You have become a writer troll. This syndrome is easy enough to fix. Step one, open the curtains. I know, it's scary, but go ahead.

Step two, shower and hydrate yourself with real water. Not Monster or whatever your poison is. Next up, eat something green. No, I don't mean that moldy cheese. Veggies folks. You need them. After that, it's time for cleaning. Do your laundry, take out the trash, clean your desk.

Clean? Great. Now it's outside time. You've made good progress having the curtains open, but you need fresh air. You probably haven't slept in a couple days, so try taking a nap. You may want to shower again depending on how deep into the writer cave you slunk.

Now, try doing some more housework, cook some food and get the hell out of the house. You need to shake the dirt off.

The most important thing is, no writing. That's right, I said no writing. It's seems counterproductive, but if you try to go back to the writing too soon, you could relapse. Give yourself a couple of days, and once someone you love tells you you are no longer acting like a vampire, go ahead and write again.

Writer's block pretty much boils down to two sources. Internal and external. Writer's cave syndrome is an internal block. You've buried yourself so far down the rabbit hole you can't see up anymore. Stress is usually externally motivated, but not always. A lack of ideas is, however, completely your fault.

Yup, I said it. If I'm out of ideas, that's my fault. I need to recharge, it's totally on me.

All of this said, the best solution I've found to writer's block is having people to bounce ideas off of. Talking things out with someone can be incredibly helpful. Don't be afraid to try it, because guess what, everybody is weird. Writers do not hold the monopoly.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Cultural Opposites: Writing from new roots

I often find myself dipping into the same cultural cookie jar when drawing inspiration for writing. It doesn't matter what genre I'm writing in. I tend to fall back to Irish roots fairly easily, and focusing on Catholicism or similar religions. It's actually a bit strange. You see, I'm not Catholic. I don't doubt there are Irish roots in my family, however, but there are plenty of other roots too. There are bits of German, Jewish, Scottish, British and the other common European ancestry that I can draw from.

I can also draw from having a family that fought in the Civil War (both sides of the fence) and very well could reach to the American Revolution. My family has a broad swath of cultural possibilities.

That said, limiting yourself just to your own family isn't always the way to go. Limiting yourself to the cultures you know can be stifling.

I branched out from Europe and headed for Russia in response to stagnation and created something new. You see, that's one of the things I love about world building. You get a chance to write all of the histories, the religion, the culture. It's all up to you. That doesn't mean you can't take a hand up here and there. I drew inspiration from Russia, Ancient Rome, and even the beloved worlds built by others. I took the things I loved and hated, the things that married into unity, and created something that was a little bit of everything, but really it's own.

But that's really only one way to write using other cultures. Recently I was tasked with writing a horror story that did not stick to American convention. Something with new monsters. Something unfamiliar. Well, when I want the strange and unfamiliar, I dip into Japanese and Asian folklore. (They have the coolest monsters) The important thing is to do it right.

If you're going to write a culture with as much history and depth, you can't lose sight of what actually important to the story. You need to use the elements that are necessary to story telling and excise the rest. You can't be heavy handed with it. That's how you end up with Japan-o-phile sounding drivel and or some fanfiction.

Writing with another cultures roots should be done with respect, and a full battery of research, but don't let the culture outweigh the story you are trying to tell. Let it weave through the story.

I don't change the way I write horror when I write about things that take place in, or have characters from, Japan. My style remains the same. My characters are influenced by heritage, but unless for some plot reason, are not overwhelmed by it.

There are a lot of things you can do wrong when writing about another country's culture. You can do things wrong when writing about your own too. It's not mutually exclusive. Every culture should be treated with care. Research (Books people, not just the interweb) is your friend. You can, and should delve back as deep as you want. But never forget about researching the modern world as well. If you're writing a story that takes place in present day Dublin, for heavens sake people, RESEARCH IT! Get on googlemaps and learn the city.

Get on local websites, find out about local pubs and hotspots. Look at the news for the area. Really learn about the place where you've settled your story.

It can take hundreds of hours of research to write a book, it depends on your personality, how you research and how well you know your subject. That shouldn't dissuade you from trying, however. I enjoy research and also enjoy writing from prior knowledge. It's a balancing act.

So make fresh choices, set stories in new places and don't be afraid to try to write from another person's roots. Because limiting yourself can get you stuck. They say you should write what you know, in some senses that is true. But guess what, you can learn something new, and then write about that too. Just learn it first. It's a bit easier than researching half way through the book and having to rewrite. Trust me.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Trying out Tone

The tone of your writing is something that you must monitor throughout the process. The same thing can be said dozens of different ways simply by changing the tone. Characters tie into tone and tone ties into genre, and in the end, if they don't marry well, your book isn't going to fly.

For example. If you're writing about a taciturn ranch hand as the hero of your high fantasy novel and you set the tone of it with an opening line as florid as a girl's love note, we have a problem. Sure, your taciturn ranch hand could be a secret romantic, but somehow I don't think gushy is going to come off as believable.

Three different tones, same idea:

The sky was green and cloudy.

The verdant heavens rolled above me, twisting illusions in the cumulus.

Green skies. Tornado weather.

See that? Each of these says the same thing, but in three separate tones. One, is boring. Two, is florid and three is reticent. Got a character who doesn't talk much? Well book! Short, clipped sentences it is!

Your tone can express so much with so little. I am well known as the queen of the sentence fragment. I use them, abuse them and love them. A sentence fragment can be the right call in the right situation. Our taciturn ranch hand certainly comes off as brusque in option three, doesn't he?

Experimenting with tone changes can help your writing. Something not working in your story? Perhaps it's nothing to do with the plot, perhaps it's the tone!

The tone makes the story. Brings the landscape of words to life. Breathes a voice into the descriptions. So don't ever be afraid to try out different tones. You may get unexpected, and fun results!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Breaking Barriers

There's this thin filament of a barrier that runs through my work. I call it, the word count problem. I've been taught for a long time now, that the sign of a good writer is being able to tell a story in a concise, clean and economical manner. That means I tend to have shorter word counts. I disdain padding, and superfluous descriptions. There was a point when my writing edged on anemic because of this barrier.

It can be very difficult to break past things like that. Sometimes, it seems that worst thing a budding writer can do, is major in writing. (I minored). You're inundated with ideas and practices and not all of them are very good. To be frank, there are a lot of instructors out there who have never been published and really don't know what it takes to get published. They are only interested in teaching you this book's manner or that book's method. They teach other people's writing methodology.

The best teachers I've ever had I can think of right away. Two of them were anonymous peers I met on a website. They tore my writing to shreds, toughened me up and very much molded me into the writer I am today. When, for the first time ever, one of them complimented me, it was the highest praise I could imagine. I knew I had earned it.

The third was a professor who helped me grow by giving me the room to do so. She encouraged my foibles and oddities and put me closer than I'd ever been to something every writer has to discover: Their style. She gave me a push towards the sometimes florid, concise contradiction that is my writing today.

Another professor helped me past my first word count hurdle. I broke 60K words with his help and wrote what is still the strangest, most complicated piece of fiction I've ever written (and rewritten and rewritten).

The last, was a strange man in a fedora. I truly found my style there. It was Florence, Italy and I had big dreams. I took a writing class to round out my schedule and was pleasantly surprised at what I found. I wrote poetry for the first time in years (some of it is even good) and while there discovered a passion for deeper and deeper plots.

These days, I still learn. I meet new people all the time that teach me things. It never ceases to amaze me what it is possible with the written word.

The barrier I broke day was an important one, which of course made me consider the past. Today I broke 75K words. The novel I'm working on will be my first to break 100K. It's a moment of pride for me, let me tell you. I rarely sprawl out in a novel, so this is a rarity for me. Hopefully, I can take this milestone and progress further to the next. Because that is what writing is all about.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Repost: Personal Politics and Writing

Another pertinent re-post from the old blog. I only have three or four of these, but I think the content is still good. 

 I was watching that TV show about the missing persons unit of the FBI today and it was about a girl that went to jail for her sister after a car crash which killed a friend of theirs.

It made me think about Bloodlines and how my characters would respond if put in prison. This led me to thinking about the 1950's and how mental health care has changed over the past fifty years which had me recalling an episode of Cold Case about a girl that dresses as a boy, falls for a boy and whose father has her committed after which she ends up brain dead and her boyfriend kills her out of mercy.

Yeah, that's how my thought trains work. Basically, I left out a few stations.

In any case, this led me to thinking about how I insert my personal prejudices and beliefs into what I write. We all do it, it's nearly impossible not to. But I've also found myself writing a scene, character or incident that I find distasteful, immoral or just plain wrong. This was a particular issue some time ago while writing a very bigoted side character who used words I would never use, ever, ever, ever, ever.

I suppose the central issue was that I didn't want other to think that I thought that what he said was all right. Because I didn't. But in the end, that's why I was writing him in. I wanted to show how wrong it was to behave and say the things he did.

A huge theme in everything I write is about lifestyles, cultures and occasionally racial, differences. I don't think anyone should be discriminated against just because they are gay/straight/bi/transgender, culturally bizarre or a different color, religion, creed or species.

(See that, I included aliens.)

While I'll admit there are aspects of certain cultures I find repugnant, I can say the same about my own cultural heritage. There are things about the past within my own culture that I would never condone. It can be difficult to balance those feelings with the position of a character. They say that you should always write what you know, but as a person who writes mostly fantasy, well, I've never actually seen or been bitten by a werewolf so...I have to go with what I read, watch and learn about through alternative sources.

A writer should be capable of writing anything. Any character, any scene. In theory. We all struggle with different things that are outside our comfort zone. The only way to push past that is by doing just that, pushing. Freaked out by swearing? Write the most profane dialogue you can think of.

Can't write an action scene? (I recommend acting it out with furniture, alone) Write the most brutal action sequence ever!

Blood and guts? Bloodbath time. Murderer? Do it. Dialogue? Talk it out and then, write pages and pages of dialogue until your fingers bleed and you get it right.

A writer should push the envelope of their comfort zone. You never know what amazing thing you'll discover when you do. The things you could write. The people you could meet. The characters you could kill off in a brutal sequence of murder by toaster....

We can't entirely erase our personal politics and beliefs from our writing, but we have to try and be objective. Show both sides. Sure, you might make that murdering psycho toaster bastard kill himself with a toaster in a bathtub on page 246, but you did show everyone that despite his murderous ways he's also an accomplished chef and animal lover.

There are two sides to every coin.


Thursday, May 17, 2012

Sex Vs. Porn - Repost from Ye Old Blog

 A post from the old Writing Wrongs and Typos blog that I still like. Funnily enough, I have gotten to know some amazing Erotica writers over the past year. They are swell folks really. I'm still not a huge fan of the genre, but I can say that my perceptions have changed a bit.

Original post:
So, I was thinking about this last night. Sex scenes. They come in all flavors. It generally breaks down to:

* Painful to read
* Obtuse to the extreme
* Detailed and clinical
* Pornographic
* Tastefully erotic
* What the hell was that?
* YAOI!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
* Medieval

The PR is a scene written with obvious distaste, poor descriptions and language bordering on the 18th century.

O to the E - So vaguely written you aren't even sure they had sex until thirty pages later a side character makes a joke about it.

DC - Reads like a medical journal/textbook.


Tasteful - difficult to achieve, using appropriate language and detailed descriptions.

WTHWT? - When after you read it you exclaim, What the hell was that? Different from O to the E because you knew sex occurred but cannot imagine why anyone would do/say any of that. Ever. For any reason

YAOI!!! - Well, if you've been on the internet the past few years you'll probably not need any explanation, however, I suggest you head to your search engine if you must look it up.

Medieval - "Please, sheath your sword." I think that says it all really.

To avoid the cliche's, one must practice, let other people read the scenes and you need to read some good scenes to get your started. This means you have to know what good sex, realistic sex and tasteful sex are.

This can boil down to the old adage "Write what you know." Well, I've seen a whole lot of young fanfiction writers out there writing sex scenes. They base these scenes on A) Porn. B) Other fanfiction and C) Erotic novels from their mom's bookshelf.

Generally speaking these youngster have a skewed idea about sex that involves lots of hot dudes having sex with one another and use of the words "member", "shaft", "sword", "spear", "staff", "stave", etc. Innuendo is king amongst our virginal writers.

That's not to say a person who has no personal experience can't write a sex scene, they can. They just need to get a better idea about the difference between Porn, Erotica, and Tasteful Sex.

Each of these things has their place. Porn seemingly has no place in "High Literature". What defines porn precisely? Well, porn is when the goal, focal point, of the story is sex. <Addendum to this> There are books that are considered "classics" that are very close to pornographic subjects. There's Story of O, which is well known and award winning.I believe you can see graphic sex in a novel and it not be porn. <end addendum> The End Game, as it were, of porn, is sexual gratification. Erotica is a story based around sexual encounters and steamy romance. Erotica can titillate and inform, with semi-graphic to graphic sexual encounters. The important thing is, Erotica has a story line which is not purely a vehicle for sexual gratification. Though there are exceptions.

"Tasteful" sex is found all across the genres. (To be fair, the horror genre also contains cases of explicit sex scenes)

<Addendum> Let's take a moment to discuss the sex scene in Breaking Dawn. When I wrote this I was mainly thinking of adult fiction, not YA. However, there are sex scenes and suggestions of the sex in YA books, and some MG books as well. (Yes, I am pointing out Tamora Pierce and the Lioness Quartet as MG and containing sex). Breaking Dawn which is marketed as YA, has  fairly explicit sex scene in it. So, sex crosses the borders of the age separation, and not just genre.<end addendum>

If you set out to write porn, that's fine, erotica, fine. You should know, both of those things can be just as difficult to write as tasteful sex. Just because it's porn doesn't mean you can have a typo. It makes you look sloppy. Though I do doubt the teenage boy reading it will pause because you put their instead of they're.

Erotica is a high-volume industry. Dozens of titles are published every year in that genre in various flavors. Most of those titles are...trash. They're moniker-ed dime store novels for a reason. <Addendum> Whew, this is where my opinion comes in as a tad changed. There are still loads of trash in the romance/erotica section of your local grocery store. However, that doesn't mean there aren't some real diamonds there too. The romance and erotica writers I've met this year have been super people, and many of them write some amazing stuff. Pigeon-holing all romance as trash is just wrong. There are some great writers in the genre, and it's unfair to them to paint everyone with the same brush. Especially when I count myself among them.<end addendum>

I suppose my point here is that you don't need to be a sex-fiend to write good sex scenes. You just need to be well - informed, well read and you could always go talk to your doctor if you have any questions.

We will always write based upon our personal experiences, and when it comes to writing sex it needs to a bit more personal and a lot less popular. Popular perception will nearly always steer you the wrong way when it comes to this subject. And as always, get a good reader and practice, practice, practice.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Scheduling Time to Write

Something many new writers (myself included) forget to do is schedule time to write. If you plan on doing this professionally, you must treat it like a job. Not part time either. Writing is a full time job whether you get paid for it or not. Resting on your laurels will not get you on the NY Times Best-Seller list. (Not a personal goal of mine, but an example).

Now, many of us work day jobs. I work a day job myself, so I do understand the struggle to find the time. But I manage. I try to write 1-4 hours per day, depending on work schedule. If I'm off, I aim for four. That sounds like a lot, but I tend to break it up into two sessions to make sure I'm not in front of the computer for ages, or cramping my hand writing longhand.

Yes, I write both ways.Sometimes it helps get me through when I'm struggling. (So do tape recorders, but we'll cover that in Writer's Block, Myth or Truth). I schedule writing for a time when I know I have few distractions. Being a night owl, and generally working in the evenings, I can sleep late so I work well into the wee hours of the morning.

My schedule tends to look like this:

Midnight/2am - 4-6 am Writing

6-2pm Sleeping

2 - 5 - Morning routine of eating, making lunch

5 - 9 (or 1-9 depending on schedule) Day Job

10- 12/2am Decompressing, emailing, Dinner, Shower, Grocery shopping, Projects

If I have opening shifts, rare, then I switch it up and sleep at night and write during the day. Not a common event these days though.

Scheduling is important. If you give yourself time in your schedule to write you are much more likely to write. Sometimes I turn the digital recorder on when I go on lunch, hop in my car and talk things out. Or I write by hand.

There is time in the day for writing if you want it badly enough. Even during the busy season when I'm at work all day six days a week and come home tired, pissed and covered in glitter, I find time to write. Whether it's a few paragraphs at lunch or a few pages while your kids are napping. You can find the time to write.

So write.

Friday, May 11, 2012

A Method for Short Stories

So, I am writing a plethora of short stories right now for a variety of anthologies. They range from fantasy to science fiction to horror to down right weird. I have to say though, that it's been rather fun. It's also brought me to the realization that I no longer have trouble writing short stories. It's like a system.

Novels are easy, for me, to write. You have all of that room to spread out and weave in subplots and madness. I love subplots. I love sub-subplots. I like layering my plots like balaclava. It's an addiction.

You don't have the time or the room to do that in a short story really, though there are many examples I can think of where I did succeed in my usual thick plot in a relatively short time span.

But that's not the point of a short story. A short story should be about a single line of thinking. At least, I've found that is what is working for me. I try to cover a short span of time, and keep it to a main plot, with a subplot. *I have to a subplot, I can't help it*

Ashley's short story system:

1.Pick the Theme and Genre - With anthology submissions, this is conveniently handed to me on a plate. I like this because I find it easy to write from prompts. Don't have a prompt or an idea? Ask a friend, or Google, Writing prompts. You'll get loads.

2. Get your Main Character *MC* Yes, this is the second thing I do. Once I have a character, it becomes easy to drop into the action.

3. Determine setting, time and place. If you have  well developed character, these things will be easy. If you are starting with a new character, I suggest fleshing them out first and then diving into the setting. 2/3 are easy enough to swap if you're a setting first person. If you settle setting first, a character should spring forth.

4. What's your word count? If you have an anthology to write for, they give you a word count to stay inside. Or is this for a magazine? What is the audience? Word count is important in short stories because it tells you how much room you have to play. I always keep this in mind. Granted, I know what I can do in a given span of words. If you aren't that familiar, or aren't settled into your style, this should be the last thing you take into consideration.

5. What is going to happen in this story? What is the point of the story?

6. Do you need to outline? If so, go ahead.

7. Get cracking and write.

8. The ending. The ending of a short story must do two things, wrap up and satisfy. A short story is like a little break from the world. Depending on genre, your reader will expect a different kind of ending out of it. Make sure the ending matches reader expectations so they come out satisfied. Do that, and you are much more likely to sell your story.

9. Get someone else to read it. Get three or four if you can. Take their suggestions at face value. If you have a beta reader or editor friend, get them to read it. For God's sake, don't take offense to advice kids. The worst thing you can do, is ignore the advice from a seasoned editor or reader. They know what they're talking about. If you can't take criticism, you aren't ready for the big bad world of publishing.

10. Edits. Edits. Edits.

11. Submission time. So, you're submitting. First off, go double check the guidelines. Every single company has formatting guidelines and things they want in the cover letter. Make sure you follow those guidelines. Failure to do so will get you rejected right off. Yes, some anthologies have picky, screwy and plain old annoying guidelines, but you better follow them to the letter if you want a shot.

12. Wait for news. The truth is that most people who submit to an anthology/magazine/etc will receive a rejection letter. That's okay. You have to take a step back and evaluate. Was the story too weak? Did I submit horror to a romance anthology? Did the story just not mesh well with the rest of the selected submissions? Some questions you won't get answers to. Just keep submitting. Giving up is not an option if you want to be published.

Good luck!