Category Archives: The Writing Process

Setting as Character

This is my second post this month in the “special sauce” category. Last time I talked about research. This post is about writing, and how to add interest to the story.

Writing, as an avocation, is as prone to fads, convention and conformity as pretty much any other human endeavor. If you pay any attention to the reams of “advice” that are thrown at aspiring writers from all corners of the literary world, you will soon see not only the current orthodoxy, you’ll see the currents and tides of changes to convention as one fashion fades and another rises…

For example, the current conventional “wisdom” includes the following “rules:”

  1. Never, ever, ever have a prologue.
  2. Adverbs are the sign of weak writing.
  3. You have to grab the reader by the throat in the first sentence, or you’ll never get to the second.
  4. Passive voice must be avoided like a literary leper.

I could go on.

One of those current conventions is that long, detailed descriptions of places and things are BadWrongWriting of the first order. After all, it violates several of the most important rules. It’s passive. It’s full of adjectives and adverbs. It interrupts the action.

It has been said by many successful editors and writers that it is unlikely that J. R. R. Tolkien could have gotten The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings published in today’s market. Too flowery. Too slow. Too…. boring.

If that is so, it’s a shame. As a writer, part of my joy in writing is in building worlds and bringing them to life for my readers. But reality is what it is, and as much as I personally love that style of writing, I have had to accept that if I want to write stories that are accepted by both editors and readers, I have to respect that convention, even as I hope it fades.

But that doesn’t mean I’ve given up on bringing my worlds to life. Instead I’ve taken another approach, and that approach is what I call “Setting as Character,” meaning I treat the world as a dynamic, interactive part of the story, instead of as a passive stage to move my characters around and through.

Here is an example of what I mean. Suppose you have a setting of a lush jungle and your protagonist has to find a ruined temple to advance the plot. You’ve gone to great trouble to create that jungle in some detail, including deciding the major flora and fauna, the weather cycles, the climate, and some level of history. Having done that you could bring the reader into that jungle like this:

“Dammit!” Joe cursed.

Blood welled up from shallow cuts on his forearm. With a gloved hand, he yanked the tangled, thorny tendrils of devil’s rose free, sending a shower of drops flying, making him blink. The cool water eased the oppressive heat, and he closed his eyes for a moment, enjoying the sensation.

Image result for stock jungle photos

A fibrous root caught his toe, making him stumble as it ripped loose, exposing a length of lichen-studded granite. The ancient rock caught his eye, it seemed out of place compared to the ubiquitous red sandstone of the area. Placing one hand on the thick trunk of a towering fern, he leaned down to study the strange stone…

In other words, make the setting part of the story. Have your characters interact with it, struggle against it, savor it…

Give your world a personality. Show the reader its spirit.

 

The Special Sauce Makes or Breaks it All

Pouring Chocolate

What makes Grandma’s pies better than anyone else’s?

What makes the Big Mac stand out?

It’s the special sauce, of course.

The sauce is the final layer, the finishing touch that elevates a dessert, a hamburger, or a rack of barbecued ribs from the level of pretty good to Wow!

Your favorite authors have their own special sauce too. It’s that special something that you recognize as soon as you flip open one of their books and start reading. It’s whatever they do that’s uniquely theirs, the sometimes subtle signature that makes their stories stand just a bit apart.

This month, we’re exploring the question of what what makes the best stories stand apart? What’s unique and recognizable about our favorite authors? Is it their character voice, their world building, their breakneck pacing, or their use of imagery?

We’re also going to discuss how newer authors work on developing their own special sauce. It can take experimentation and lots of practice, and it can be a really fun journey.

So stick around and share what you consider the special sauce of your favorite authors.

 

Lies New Authors Tell Themselves

Nothing makes a professional author chuckle like listening to potential writers deciding to get into the field. Far too many think it’s easy to write a book and then have publishing companies dump shipping containers of hundred dollar bills on your front lawn. While this is a theoretical possibility (E.L. James comes to mind), it’s not probable.

I thought I would pick a few common lies that wanna-be writers tell themselves. Enjoy!

Writers Make Lots of Money

If only this was true. The best advice any professional author can give you is “don’t quit your day job.” You will need the income stability for yourself and your family, plus you may need the healthcare benefits if your day job provides them. Other benefits include life insurance and retirement contributions.

A study in the United Kingdom showed the average income for a professional author was £12,500, or $15,400 per year. That’s up from $11,000 per year, but only because the British Pound has declined in relation to the U.S. Dollar ever since Brexit was approved. Either way, fifteen grand and change will not go much further than paying some of your bills.

Is it possible to get rich writing? Yes, but again, not likely. You may have similar luck playing the Powerball and Megamillions lottery twice a week.

My recommendation? If you feel the call to write, then write and publish. Don’t go in with the idea you’ll get rich. If it happens, congratulations. Maybe you want to switch over and write full time, now that you no longer have to worry about money. You can work towards that goal, and you can change the odds with improving your craft and continuing to publish.

Writers are Experts in Language and Grammar

I have yet to meet one, although I would hedge and say that J.R.R. Tolkien is probably one of the closest. Every author I know makes a ton of mistakes when writing. After all, that’s why editors were invented. Editors typically have a better grasp of the mechanics of language…or at least the great ones do. The editors will comb through your work and fix all of those comma splices and split infinitives, vacuum out the extra commas, and polish the correct letters when you use to, too, or two.

The purpose of an author is to tell a fascinating story in a logical methodology. Things have to happen and destinies and lives should be changed. Focus on that while doing your best to learn more about using proper grammar. At the very least, your editor will appreciate the effort.

You Can Never Become an Author

This is the saddest lie one can tell themselves. You’re basically convincing yourself not to even try, although you want to. You might be the magic lottery winner (and not Shirley Jackson’s version) if you start to curate your thoughts and words onto a page.

Is it hard work? Hell yes, it certainly is! It takes a lot of writing, editing, re-writing, and re-re-writing to put out a decent story. You can’t wait for your muse to inspire you if you’re gunning for the professional author title. Writers write, and that means there is no time for things like “writer’s block”. Can you imagine not selling coffee at your day job because you’re not feeling your coffee muse? Writing is just that, a job. That means you need to learn to be productive. There are a lot of suggestions and recommendations on how to do this on The Fictorians. In fact, this October and November, there will be a NaNoWriMo theme that stresses productivity.

In the end, focus on the craft. Notch out some time from your busy schedule, even if it’s only an hour, and use that time to write just as if you were going to your day job. Produce new words. Edit old ones. Learn new skills. Read new books outside of your favorite genre. Improve yourself instead of lying to yourself. One has to realize that most of the time we’re our own worst critic.

I believe in you, for one. Now go earn some more fans.


 

About the Author:DeMarco_Web-5963

Guy Anthony De Marco is a disabled US Navy veteran speculative fiction author; a Graphic Novel Bram Stoker Award® nominee; winner of the HWA Silver Hammer Award; a prolific short story and flash fiction crafter; a novelist and poet; an invisible man with superhero powers; a game writer (Sojourner Tales modules, Interface Zero 2.0 core team, third-party D&D modules); and a coffee addict. One of these is false.
A writer since 1977, Guy is a member of the following organizations: SFWA, WWA, SFPA, IAMTW, ASCAP, RMFW, NCW, HWA. He hopes to collect the rest of the letters of the alphabet one day. Additional information can be found at Wikipedia and GuyAnthonyDeMarco.com.

 

Crit Groups Suck I mean Rock

It was my turn. I passed out my thirty pages to the group to take home and love. I knew they would. They’d come back the next week and beg for more. The prose. The story. The insight. They’d share with their friends. The leader of the crit group (a group I paid $200 a month to be a part of) had been published—four times. She’d probably kick my submission over to her agent. I’d have publishers beating down my door, demanding I quit my day job and finish the book.

The next week I waited nervously as we went through the opening formalities. Then they pulled out their redlined thirty pages and looked at me. Not with eyes of amazement or envy, but…pity? Confusion?

“Well,” said the four-time published author, “where do I start?”

I learned a lot in the next twenty minutes. It was like prancing around the high school cafeteria, butt naked.

They wanted to know what happened to the peanuts. See, my character went on a road trip with his dad. He stopped in the gas station and bought peanuts. I never mentioned them again. They wanted to know what happened. The group leader suggested if I put it on the table, that I use it.

I sucked at POV. I hadn’t written a story but wrote about the scenes I would have watched on television, shifting camera angles back and forth. Good for television, bad for storytelling. This was the first time I learned about the concept known as Point of View.

“But beautiful imagery in the fire scene.” That coming from the four-time published author. I didn’t know what imagery was. But I had written something that I had experienced, building a campfire.

After the experience, my pride more than bruised, more like destroyed, and surprisingly with no agent deals, I about gave up writing.

Fast forward 10 years. Tonight, I just got off the phone with a phenomenal crit group. We submit1000 words each week and critique them. We probably overanalyze things, discuss word variations, plot structure, character development. The benefit of this group, hasn’t been the critiques, the multiple eyes and perceptions that catch inconsistencies or typos (like mine tonight where I wrote “her waste” instead of “her waist”).

No the greatest gift of this crit group has not been so apparent. In reading other writings as a fellow critiquer, I have to ask myself a number of questions: Why does this work or not work? Why did I misread this? What do they mean here? Why did they take it that direction? Why did they use that word? How might I have said that? Why do I love this character? Why do I enjoy this character? What made that piece great? And on and on and on.

Then, while asking the questions, developing a response that is constructive and then sharing that response with the author has helped me better understand my own writing weaknesses.

Robert Heinlein said, “When one teaches, two learn.” This my friends, is why you need a crit group. Because when all six of us teach, all six of us learn and we are getting better, I am getting better.

Here are some things crit groups have taught me.

  1. How you mention something in a story can add great significance to that something…like peanuts.
  2. If you put something on the table, use it.
  3. Good writers are not born. Everyone sucks as some stage in their writing career. If you want to be a good writer, persistence will help.
  4. DON’T PAY FOR CRIT GROUPS – even if they are a four-time published author.
  5. If you don’t like your crit group, find another. There are plenty. Maybe join two.
  6. If you’re the smartest guy in your crit group, maybe join a second (don’t necessarily quit your first because Robert Heinlein had a good point.
  7. Make the time to submit, attend, and offer feedback in your crit groups.
  8. Be consistent.
  9. Writing prompts, given by someone in the crit group is a waste of time. I’ve got plenty of ideas and too little time.
  10. Join a group that writes the same genre as you. It’s hard to get feedback on legal thrillers if everyone else is a fantasy guy.
  11. Be appreciative. They’re helping you and maybe you’re helping them.
  12. Take all feedback. If it helps, great. If not, throw it away quietly.