Category Archives: Ace Jordyn

If it isn’t working …

If it isn’t working, change it.

This axiom can apply to a lot of things in our personal and writing life.

While reflecting on this year, I realized that I made changes in two significant areas of my life. Things weren’t working in a bad, horrible way, but in ways which didn’t allow me to be as productive and healthy as I could be.

On the personal side, we all know that we can’t change anyone else. We can only change ourselves. That’s because the desire to change has to come from within to be realized and to be sustainable. This past year, more than ever before, I had to create boundaries and acknowledge my physical limitations. I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) and although I have never worn it on my sleeve, I learned that I must own it and not deny how it affects my life.

Publicly admitting that I have CFS feels risky. What if a publisher learns of my illness and isn’t sure I can handle the stress and time commitment of a writing career? Truth is, I know others with this illness and their writing careers are doing well. How do they do it? Time management. Cutting out extraneous activities, and the emotional and physical stressors imposed by other people. They focus by choosing to do what is important (writing) and sticking to it. This also includes self-care.

Mind you, this is what we all need to be doing. The A-type personality of doing all things and being all things to everyone burns most of us out. This is why I’m speaking out. It’s not for fear of a publisher rejecting me but to let other writers know that it’s okay to be who we are (health and other issues) and that we don’t have to live up to the schedules and productivity of superstars who have made it big in the industry. Hey, being on best seller lists, writing all the time, and being appreciated by a large readership is still my goal, but I don’t stress about it anymore. I just work toward it one bit at a time.

So, on the personal side, I became much more accepting of who I am and in applying self-care. The cool thing is, is that by doing this, I’ve become more productive, have grown as a writer, and was a finalist for the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association’s Aurora Award. How cool is that?

The writing life can be lonely and sometimes it’s good to have another writer or group to discuss story issues. Realizing my need for such a group got me talking about this with other writers. This brought about the second great change in my life – the creation of a developmental writing group.

I still belong to a critique group and a speculative fiction group which has skills sessions and critiques. The camaraderie within these groups is great as is the learning but they weren’t exactly what I wanted at this time. I wanted to learn how to write mysteries and to be in a group that supported story development, not critiquing.

Four of us got together and found a mentor. Once a month, we share what we’ve been working on, and ask for feedback and brainstorming on specific problems. We’ve all become better at outlining and as a result, our stories are much better for it. The wonderful thing about this group is that it is supportive and positive. We each get a half hour to talk about what we want, whether it’s about an outline, story structure, a piece of our writing or whatever questions are running through our heads. The others respond, share their insights and at the end, we check to make sure the person’s concerns were addressed. We leave inspired, energised and most importantly, happy that we’ve had a good place in which to talk about specific writing issues as we develop and plot our stories.

Change comes in many forms, both personal and professional but only after we’ve been honest with ourselves can we create the type of environment and support we need to become more productive and successful.

Outlining in 10 Steps

I’ve always been able to hold the broadest of outlines in my head. I always knew what the story was, who the characters were, what the goal was, what would happen at the climax and how the book would end. I’d also write in-depth character backgrounds and then I’d put the story in their hands and the characters would tell me how to get to the climax and reach the story goal.

This method of sort-of-plotting and writing by the seat of my pants worked well enough writing fantasy stories. But I wondered what I’d do if I had to provide an outline for a novel or a series. I also wanted to write a mystery/crime novel. Mystery conventions include planting solid clues and red herrings, and developing a credible outline of events. Flying by the seat of my pants, wasn’t going to accomplish this. I had to learn how to outline.

After studying and reading about outlining for mysteries, I created a system which works for me no matter what genre I write in. It’s a mash-up of many bits of wisdom and has its own gaps. The first few points can be done in any order.

1) Know the story goal and the consequences of not meeting the story goal. Keep the stakes high. For example, Zex must steal back the magic cooking pot from the ogre because leprechauns are dying because the gold which sustains them.

2) Build the world. The world determines what your character can/can’t do and the rules which must be followed or broken.

3) Understand the genre requirements and the type of story you are telling. Is it a fantasy (elements of magic or the fantastic) which is told using the Hero’s Journey story arc? Is it a rags to riches, folk tale, thriller, revenge, forbidden love, or crime story? In a fantasy, you’ll need to know how the magic system works and the cost of using magic. In a mystery, you need to know the crime scene, the victim, the perpetrator, and those involved with the victim before you can outline.

4) Create character backgrounds because that will inform their motivations and will determine how they act and react.

5) Figure out your theme – you’re writing the story because you have something to say about the human condition. That something is what you are passionate about. Theme can be as simple as good versus evil or as complex as exploring how people deal with death. Once you’ve thought about the previously mentioned items in this list, take a moment to reflect on what the theme or point of your story is about. This is important because it affects how the story is outlined and written.

6) Assign each character a position or stance on the theme. Some will be for it. Some against. All to varying degrees. For example, let’s use the theme of the ends justify the means for our story with Zex the leprechaun. You must decide if he agrees, disagrees, or believes some variation (sometimes it is necessary) of this theme. All characters (or groups) should have differing views on the matter because that is a source for conflict and tension.

7) Note the beginning, the turning point, the climax, and the end of the story. These are the goal posts you are aiming for. If you are using the three, four or five act structures, or a story telling structure such as the Hero’s Journey, note the events which meet the key requirements for that structure. This should include genre story telling requirements.

8) Broadly fill in the gaps. For mystery, I chart everyone’s motivations and their relationships with the victim. I note the crime scene details then I plot the events leading to the crime scene, and where everyone was when the crime happened. I know who the perpetrator is and how that person will be caught. Then I plot the cat-and-mouse game of clues and red herrings. When writing fantasy, I employ a similar method because the protagonist’s journey is about a problem needing to be solved.

9) Fill in the details by creating scenes. If you’re a pantser, please don’t panic, this method I’m about to share still leaves lots of room for the imagination. I use this system to outline a few scenes at a time (not the entire novel). The broader outline (points 7 and 8) keeps me focussed on the theme while this one allows for tension, conflict, and action on the scene level. I call this the “And Then” method and I must credit author Mahrie G. Reid for showing it to me.

And then something happens. And the character feels ….

For example: And then Zex tripped over an invisible rope and fell into a trap. He panics over his silliness for watching the butterfly rather than focussing on the task. And then the ogre hovers on the rim of he pit, telling Zex that he will be cooked in the magic pot for the ogre’s dinner. Zex feels frightened. And then, Zex swallows his fright and forces himself to outsmart the ogre. He feels emboldened.

Or for a romantic fantasy: And then when Josh rips off his shirt, Kimberley sees the slash of the dragon’s claw across his back. At once, Kimberley feels her heart flutter and she feels faint at the sight of blood. And then Kimberley vomits and feels embarrassed.

10) Now, it’s time to write the story. I write the first few scenes, and then I go back and use the “And then…” method to plot out the next few scenes.

As you write the story, the outline will change. How things happen will change. That is normal and shows that the characters, the plot, and the conflicts are dynamic. Using some form of outlining has the benefit of faster writing, less major revision, and it will help you write the dreaded synopsis because the key elements of the story are determined.

 

An Easy Way to Maximize Your Word Count

Sometimes you just need to get that story written and out of your head. Whether it’s a self-imposed deadline, a commitment to NaNoWriMo, or any other reason, sometimes you simply must get the words down quickly.

By the end of a few days of hard typing, I’m mentally and physically exhausted. As it comes closer to the end of the week or the month, I have less energy with each passing day to meet the target. Word count goals slip and I wonder how I’ll ever survive writing the novel. Plus, sadly, my fingers, and my shoulders, ache from being at the desk for hours.

Then, I discovered the miracle of dictating the novel and one simple trick which made it easier and faster for me to dictate. But first, here are a few things you can do to increase the efficiency with which you dictate:

1) Know where you’re going
If you outline, you’ve got this one cinched. If you’re a pantser, then give each chapter or scene a cursory outline the day before. There is a little articulated reason for doing some sort of outlining the day before – once you’ve written your cursory thoughts down, your subconscious works at the scenario you’ve suggested and plays with it. You’ll either stick to your original or you’ll change it, but either way, you’ll have written a better story. We need that time to process ideas. I don’t know who to credit with the thought that we should not use the first idea that comes to mind – come up with a list of possibilities and the further you go on the list, the less trite it will be.

2) Don’t over-do it!
If you’re new to dictating or if you haven’t done it for a while, don’t over-do it when you start. Speaking for long periods of time takes practice and vocal cords need to be trained for the marathon. Now, I can dictate 3,000 words an hour or more if I’m on a roll. In two or three hours I can dictate what used to take a full exhausting day writing. Now, I have time to do the other things which are important, like cooking a nice dinner or day dreaming how much more trouble I can get my protagonist into!

3) Figure out where you dictate the best
You don’t have to sit at your desk or take your laptop with you to write your story. Go for a walk, sit on the deck, climb a mountain, be at the kid’s soccer game, or go for a drive (but please don’t be a distracted driver) – whatever the activity, you can dictate your story on the move and away from the office. There’s a lot of great software out there to transcribe your words into a document. Dictating on the move increases productivity, and may turn out to be your preferred method to ‘write’ because the distractions of ringing phones, family, friends, housework or yard work are suddenly non-existent. Any ativity which increases word count is good!

I’m not usually good at walking and ‘writing’, but I have written a short story this way. One day, I went for walk in a wilderness park, saw a log and got an idea for a story about a unicorn society fighting trolls (I have no explanation on how this works, but the squirrels on the treadmill of my imagination make a lot of weird things happen!). I sat on that log, talked the story through out loud, transcribed it when I got home and then I had a rough outline of a short story to work on. Otherwise, the story details would have gotten lost on the walk home.

My preferred method of dictating is to know where I want to go with the story, sit back in a comfortable recliner in my office, make sure the door is closed and then I talk it through.

4) Minimise frustration
Frustration with dictating comes in a few forms but they’re easy to overcome. For example, if you’ve got some really cool names and words you’ve invented, the dictation software can mess them up every time. The solution? Use simple place names that the software understands. Late on you can use hte ‘find and replace’ command to correct the names. Some software will let you add the words to its dictionary, but the trick is that you’ll have to say those words in exactly the same way each time and that may not work so well if you’re suffering with a cold or are tired.

The other trick to minimising frustration is to recognize that what you are dictating is the first draft and it will need revisions later. That’s an advantage I discovered. I like to write as cleanly as I can, and I edit as I write. Sometimes this doesn’t work because clean sentences don’t mean a clean or non-repetitive concept. Now, I dictate to get the scene, chapter or idea written and then I revise later. Oddly enough, dictating has actually allowed me to write better scenes. I think that’s because I’m focussing on moving the story forward and the slowness of typing not keeping up with a thought and the distractions of a misspelled word (dictating software is not dyslexic like my fingers) don’t throw me off.

But the biggest trick I learned to minimise frustration is to dictate with my eyes closed! Once I discovered this trick, the words and ideas really began to flow!

Sounds weird, but it works. I’ll give the scene notes a look over and then I imagine that scene. When I write, I see movies in my head all the time. Now, I close my eyes, and I tell not only what my protagonist sees, but it’s like I’m right there, experiencing it with him or her. I miss fewer details because I see, hear, smell, and feel more.

Closing my eyes and dictating works exceptionally well when I’m doing character backgrounds and interviews. The reactions, the insights, the immediacy of the ‘conversations’ feel more authentic because I’m not needing my brain to translate images, feelings, and ideas through the physical and mechanical process of typing. One less barrier makes the writing process quicker, easier, less exhausting and feeling more authentic.

Maximise your word count by dictating the novel. Let software do the typing, while you sit back, close your eyes and speak the movie you see before you.

4 Things Every Pantser Needs to Know to Write a Great First Draft

NanoWrimo is coming. Or, you have two weeks of vacation and you want to write that novel. Or, you have a deadline looming for the next book. Sometimes, you just want to get that first draft done so you can work on the revisions. Or, you have a great idea for a book and need the glue to put it together.

Whatever the case, there is a way to write a decent first draft quickly. Here are four things to help write your first draft well without a lot of outlining. While some like to outline in great detail I find that it doesn’t always work very well for me. But, like it or not, we all do some form of outlining even if it’s just in our heads.

The first three you’ll think are no brainers, but the fourth? It’s the secret glue to making a story come together and stick … and it’s more important than you think … and sometimes this fourth point is actually your number one consideration!

1) Follow a basic story arc.
Whether it’s the hero’s journey, or knowing the beginning, middle and end with two or three try/fail cycles thrown in, know the basic story structure for your genre. It what’s readers and publishers expect you, as a professional writer/author to know and follow. So learn it and use it.

2) Know your protagonist and the world your protagonist functions in.
There are a lot of great posts on this site about creating great characters and what motivates them. Know your protagonist well because that will inform how he responds and reacts in situations and what motivates him to take on the challenge the villain presents and how he will respond to that challenge.

3) Know your villain and what motivates him.
You may not appear on the pages as often as the protagonist but you still need to know the villain in as much depth as the protagonist. The villain motivates the protagonist, is who the protagonist reacts against, and sets the obstacles. In a murder mystery, the author needs to know the crime scene, the victim and the criminal in a s much (or more) detail than the protagonist before writing the first draft. I’ve come to believe, that in every genre we all need to have similar cache of knowledge to write a good first draft.

And now for the secret glue that holds all this together …

4) Theme
Yup. Theme.

Most authors don’t try to figure this out until they’ve completed their novel. Not understanding your theme ahead of time, creates massive revisions, and characters who don’t always have depth and who don’t have distinct voices.

Theme is about making a universal truth personal. It is taking a larger truth such as good prevails over evil, love conquers all, David can beat Goliath, and so on, and making it a central stake in the protagonist’s world.

Theme is the idea which all characters from the villain, the protagonist and the supporting characters will either try to prove or disprove. Theme informs motivations for each character as they will either be, to varying degrees, for, against or ambivalent to the idea. Because of their attitude or belief with regards to the theme, characters will either support, hinder, or be decidedly unhelpful. Most importantly, they will have different voices.

With theme, characters will always move the story forward, illuminate the point you the writer are trying to make in telling the story and theme and they will broaden the scope of the issue thus making the story richer for the reader. Every character’s desire to either prove or disprove the theme forms the central conflict.

You are thinking that if you’ve followed steps 2 and 3 and you know your protagonist and villain, that you have your central conflict. You are right. But your writing will be more informed if you are aware of the conflict and what it means or what the principle surrounding it is. That is theme. It is the deepest motivation, the desire, the earnest yearnings and dreams your characters have. It is what makes the prize or the goal so valuable. Once you’ve got his nailed, then you develop the rest of the cast to illuminate the theme and the conflict.

Conversely, if you have an idea and don’t know where or how to start the story, think about the theme and what universal truth or belief you want to write about, Then, create the host of characters who show different sides of the struggle.

Finally, knowing the theme also gives purpose to character transformation. The protagonist has to change, for if he or she is ambivalent, there is no story. Basically, the protagonist knows what he wants to accomplish and must overcome internal and external obstacles to get the prize. Theme gives your character a reason to grow and change.

In short, know your theme. Choose characters who will represent different sides, who have different opinions, and you will have a lot of options for conflict, a lot of different voices.

So my fellow pantsers, if you are aware of these four things, you’re well on your way to writing a truly spectacular first draft!