Author Archives: fictorians

Three-D Writing: Part One

A guest blog by Karen Traviss

Some day – maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, as the man said – you might find yourself wondering why suddenly nothing you write seems to come alive on the page.

I don’t mean writer’s block. You’re still churning stuff out, knowing where you need to go, but when you read it back to yourself it feels flat and lifeless, regardless of the amount of information that you’ve imparted to the reader. It’s hard to put your finger on it: there’s nothing actually wrong with it. All you know is that it just doesn’t fly.

Sometimes walking away from it for a couple of weeks is all you need to see it with new eyes, but you might not have the luxury of time, or it might be a symptom of a broader problem, that you’ve run out of creative juice. It’s not that you don’t know where to take the story next: it’s just that you can’t see a better way of telling it.

There are always different ways to tell the same story. Only you know whether your current version is “wrong” – trust your judgement the way a painter or musician does instead of assuming an outsider will know better – and one size doesn’t fit all. But one way of finding alternatives is to learn from the techniques of other media. Take your troublesome story, chapter, or scene, and see how it works as a comic, movie, or game.

I’m a visual thinker. I have to “translate” my books from mental movies into descriptions and transcriptions. I write comics and games as well as novels, and when I get an idea for a story, my first question is which medium would suit it best. But I’d take a guess that most novelists never write anything but prose fiction or essays, and many don’t read comics or play games, so they’re not used to applying images to story. My advice probably sounds useless: how can you learn anything by doing what you don’t know how to do and don’t even consume? But if you think of yourself as just a writer and reader, you almost certainly watch TV and movies as well. You can use those instead. You already know more than you think.

Take a scene or a few chapters of your manuscript and jot down a summary of what happens. hen imagine that extract as scenes in a movie or pages of a comic. (Grab a video or find a comic in a similar genre and take a look at it first if you’re not sure where to begin.) Then sketch a storyboard of your novel excerpt – stick figures and lollypop trees will do fine – and see what lends itself to images and what doesn’t. And fill those panels with every object you think will be there, even if you haven’t mentioned it in the manuscript. Your brain will probably rush to fill empty spaces anyway. It’s very good at show-not-tell.

You don’t have to get it right. You’ll have clunky transitions, and panels or shots that you just don’t know how to fill, but those gaps will be equally useful in understanding how you can bring your story alive. When you need images that grab the eye, you’ll realise that maybe you need to start the intro with a guy wandering around a museum and being moved on by the staff because he spends so long in there, and ditch the opening where he’s just sitting in his room while he ponders how much he loves history. Just write in what you’re trying to convey in any gap and go back to it later.

Now take a look at the finished storyboard, gaps and all. Does it turn out to be all talking heads because the characters aren’t anywhere specific or doing anything that adds to the story? Do they move around in interesting and relevant settings? Are there objects in their field of view that add information when examined, a portrait on the wall or a warning sign, like discoverables in games? Does the scene end on a dramatic image with an implied “To be continued” panel like a comic? Find your gaps and visually boring sequences, and from those filled gaps, more ideas will flow.

The opening line to this essay is, as I hope most of you know, from the movie Casablanca. Whatever film you use as a crash course in visual grammar to pep up your manuscript, don’t pick that one. The irony is that one of the greatest films of all time is, when you analyse it, almost all talking heads, very few locations, nearly all interiors, and almost no action. But with a great cast, a cracking script, and a solid story, you can get away with it. Just not this time.

Part II: Learning To Take Risks.

About Karen Traviss:
KT
New York Times best-selling author Karen Traviss is a former journalist and has also spent way too much of her life around politicians and police. Going Grey, the first in her new techno-thriller series, and the sequel, Black Run, are available now.
Website and newsletter sign-up: www.karentraviss.com

Twitter: @karentraviss

Setting Realistic, S.M.A.R.T. Goals – A Guest Post by Shannon Fox

I still remember that day in middle school when our teacher showed up with a pile of school-issued planners for each of us to use keep track of our homework and learn good study habits. I excitedly flipped through mine, mentally vowing to use it religiously and fill it up with neatly written, color-coded tasks. The fact that I have terrible handwriting was a non-issue. With this planner in my hands, I was about to morph into one of those uber-successful adults with letter-perfect handwriting.

Imagine my surprise when I looked up and saw my classmates were less than enthused by our gift from the school. They looked even more dismayed to learn that we would actually be required to use this thing and we would need to show it to our teacher weekly. I silently cheered as I thought of all the free points I was going to get towards my grade.

Though the color-coding and perfect handwriting aspects never materialized, I did use my planner religiously. I scooped up all my free points week after week and began my love affair with planners, to-do lists, and scheduling out my days by the hour. Over the years my physical planner has largely been replaced by a digital calendar, a to-do list on my phone, and an online project management tool (I use, love, and recommend Trello). But my desire to track and plan my life has not waned.

I would estimate I meet 85% of my goals or more. If I don’t meet a goal, it’s usually because of one of two reasons. It could be because I’m busy meeting another, more important goal. Or it could be because my goal is too ambitious and almost impossible to meet.

Take this most recent goal I set for myself as an example. I’m almost embarrassed to admit I seriously thought this was at all possible. But after I finished writing the latest draft of my novel in November, I (super) optimistically thought to myself, I can have this edited and revised by February. Two months, that’s no sweat. Easy peasy.

I promise I was of sound mind and entirely sober when I came up with this goal for myself. I’m also not naïve, I’ve written and edited books before. But somehow I really believed this was doable.

You’re probably wondering how that goal is working out for me. Well…let’s put it this way, I’ve edited twelve chapters out of eighty-four total. At the time of this writing, I have about two and half weeks to finish the other seventy-two chapters.

Obviously, I’m not going to be making this. Not even close.

By all accounts, goal setting is a good behavior and is something we should all practice. So, where did I go wrong?

If you’ve worked in an office setting or spent any time reading about productivity and time management, you’ve probably encountered S.M.A.R.T. goals before. A S.M.A.R.T. goal is a goal that is:

Specific

Measurable

Achievable

Relevant

Time-Bound

Most experts advocate for the use of S.M.A.R.T. goals or something similar because they help people turn nebulous ideas into results. Here’s how my editing goal looks when run through the S.M.A.R.T. framework:

Specific: I will finish editing my book.

Measurable: I will measure my goal by how many chapters I’ve finished editing.

Achievable: I will read through each chapter to make sure it is fulfilling its role of moving the story along, is interesting, well-written, free of grammar mistakes, free of plot holes and plot inconsistencies, and is as polished as I can make it. I will then finish the chapter by searching in the text for each of the items on my list of words I overuse/should avoid and make corrections as needed.

Relevant: Finishing editing my book will move me to the next stop along my road to publication.

Time-Bound: I will complete this by the beginning of February (about two months time).

So, I did have a S.M.A.R.T. goal. All the parts were there. But what I was lacking was a realistic goal.

Here’s the thing about me: although I know time and energy are both finite resources, I tend to overlook that fact when I’m goal setting. Because it’s really just inconvenient and it gets in the way of my super optimistic goals.

I also forgot to account for the fact that along with becoming an (I hope) better writer over the last year and a half, I also became an (I hope) better and more critical editor. So with both these overlooked facts in mind, I set the super unrealistic goal of editing an entire book in two months.

Clearly, it’s not enough to set goals for yourself. It’s not enough to set S.M.A.R.T. goals for yourself either. You have to set goals that are reasonable in order to have a chance at success.

Some people beat themselves up for not meeting the personal goals they’ve set (and let’s face it, unless you’re lucky enough to be a full-time writer, all your writing goals are personal goals). It’s okay to be disappointed in yourself once in awhile. We’re fallible and we make mistakes. We have to constantly push ourselves to be better. But your disappointment in yourself has to be warranted. If you couldn’t meet an unrealistic goal, there’s no reason to be disappointed in yourself. There’s nothing wrong with you – it’s the goal that was wrong.

I’m not at all disappointed in myself. Okay, maybe just a little – but only because I was nuts to think this goal was viable in the first place.

But I’m not at all disappointed that I’m still editing my book and nowhere near done. I know I’m doing my best to keep up with everything in my life and whenever I do have time to sit down and work on my book, I really feel it is getting better. And that’s all that matters.

 

About Shannon Fox:

I have a B.A. in Literature-Writing from UC-San Diego. I write novels and short stories, particularly young adult, contemporary, historical, and science fiction. I maintain my own blog of book reviews and writing advice at IsleofBooks.com. I am a regular blogger for Equine Journal and Coastal Premier Properties. I have authored over 200 articles and blogs for online and print publication. I was also a research assistant to the authors for the published novels Teen 2.0 and Against Their Will. In addition to writing, my professional background is in marketing and advertising. I run a free marketing resource for entrepreneurs and small business owners at www.MinMarketing.com.

Made to Be Broken – A Guest Post by Hamilton Perez

A guest post by Hamilton Perez.

I was just starting out in college when I first decided to be a writer, and I set for myself the goal of publishing my first novel before I graduated. Seemed reasonable, I thought. It’s an uncertain field, after all, I should try to break in as soon as possible so I don’t just sit on my degree afterward. Now, several years after graduating, I still haven’t finished that first novel, let alone published one.

To be a writer is to be a dreamer. But that’s only half of it. To be a writer is to be disappointed. It’s easy, in the beginning to be blinded by imagination, ambition, by the colorful worlds sprouting and blooming inside your head. You can do this, you think. It’s all possible.

And therein lays the unsolicited rub.

Being a writer, or any artist really, is essentially an act of faith. It’s surrendering any sense of control in your personal (read: financial) destiny in pursuit of a creative field that’s harder to crack than a macadamia nut.

That’s why goals are such alluring creatures to an artist. They allow us to believe (for however brief a time) that we have some control over our pitiful fates. They’re lies we tell ourselves to get us moving when the doubt creeps in. But as with art, goals are often born from an excess of ambition. You learn that quickly as you fail to write your thousand words a day, then your five hundred words, then one hundred, until that day comes when you don’t write at all and spend three hours on the couch, watching The Flash with your dog who’s clearly disappointed in you.

Once you fail at your goals, you realize that the same imagination that fuels stories also fuels your hope of what you can accomplish in the one or two hour window you’ve set aside between work, relationships, and nap time. Little did you know when you set those goals that you were setting yourself up for failure.

O cruel, twisty irony!

It’s easy at this point to be discouraged. Indeed, that part’s encouraged. Wallow, dammit. You’re an artist. But once you’ve finished your wallowing, take a look at your work. You might have failed to meet a daily word count, but perhaps you reached half of it. Maybe you found a new plot device or story title. There’s always a silver lining hidden amid the dross. You’ve made something, which is the first step away from making nothing.

Before you can be a successful writer, you have to be a bad one. Before you can set reasonable goals, you have to chase the crazy ones. You have to know what your limits are, what you can handle and what you can’t. The good news: you’re doing it! The bad: you have to fail, you are going to fail.

Embrace that failure.

But setting goals and working towards them isn’t enough. You have to recognize when those goals aren’t working and are actually holding you back. Writing 250 words a day isn’t going to make you a better writer if you’re just typing “Why am I doing this?” fifty times. When that failure comes, you need to either change the goal or abandon it. It’s better to only write a promising first chapter during National Novel Writing Month than to write a terrible novel that had some potential in chapter one.

In 2016, I tried the popular NaNoWriMo for the first time. I planned out the story a month ahead. I did my research beforehand. I calculated how much I needed to write in a day and when I could afford to take a day off. And the first week I was on a roll, churning out one to two thousand words a day. But in the second week, I started to slip. I wrote less and I was less happy with what I wrote. The dream of having a completed novel to work with and develop in December was slipping away. I had a choice: I could either slog through and try and reach the final word count, or readjust my goals and develop the parts of the novel I liked to see where the story actually wanted to go.

The exciting result: I still haven’t finished that novel… But I absolutely love the three chapters I’ve got so far. Most of what I’d written after that point has been scrapped or reworked, and the novel is so much better for it. But because of the work I did during NaNoWrMo, even though I technically failed at the goal, I now know where I want the story to go.

Like rules, creative goals are made to be broken. They aren’t for life planning. They’re for now. For getting you moving, getting you writing. Whether you meet them isn’t really the point. The point is you keep going. Sometimes slowly, sometimes quick. You keep going. You write and you create.

So set your goals. Set reasonable ones. Set ambitious ones. Just set some goals, something—anything—for you to shoot for. Then abandon them when they stop working for you. Wallow a bit. Clear your head. Set some new goals, and write.

Rinse, repeat.

 

About Hamilton Perez

Hamilton Perez is a writer and freelance editor living in Sacramento, California. When not writing, he can be found rolling 20-sided dice or chasing squirrels with the dog. His stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Metaphorosis, and Syntax & Salt. You can follow him on Twitter @TheWritingHam.

In Favor of Failure – A Guest Post by Colton Hehr

A guest post by Colton Hehr.

“Don’t quit” is  one of the most common adages passed around the writing community. Don’t quit writing, don’t quit submitting, don’t quit your day job. We’ve all heard some variation or another and it’s not bad advice. Writing as a career requires playing the long game, so consistent effort is a prerequisite. Yet, at the end of each year, most of us can look at a check list of projects and find that we stopped working on one or set aside another. At some point in our efforts, we quit. 

If you asked most of us, we’d probably admit to quitting more readily than to failing, not only in writing but in other areas of our life: you rarely hear someone say “I failed my diet.” They say “I quit my diet.” Or “I quit going to the gym.” Or “I quit playing guitar.” We almost always couch these situations as quitting rather than failure. Failure has negative connotations and if we quit before we fail, then the failure never really occurs, does it?

I want to argue in favor of failure. I think it’s more useful to us as writers than quitting is. The terms might be synonymous to some people, but let me split hairs for a moment. Quitting and failure are only similar because they happen at the same time. To use a sports analogy, quitting is when you stop playing the game because you’re losing, and failing is when you play to the end and accept your loss.

The first reason I prefer failing to quitting is an unfortunate reality of commercial writing: I know that I’m probably going to suffer some failures or setbacks in my career, at some point, purely from circumstances outside my control. Maybe my manuscript gets passed in the slush pile because an agent has too many books from that genre. Maybe I send in a short story to an online market that goes under.  Any number of things could affect my career negatively, all completely outside of my control.

By holding myself accountable and acknowledging my own personal failures, I’m more prepared to deal with those uncontrollable failures.  It might be disappointing, but it won’t be debilitating. Our personal failures are sort of like callouses, they help us come to grips with whatever the world might throw at us.

The second benefit to failing is that I think we learn more from it than from quitting. When something ends, whether in failure or in success, there’s a sense of closure that quitting doesn’t provide (or, at least, that I’ve never felt from quitting). Failure is an important teaching tool in several endeavors, from music to athletic, and it can serve the same purpose for writers. 

Think of failure as a diagnostic tool.  When we acknowledge that we’ve failed, we can step back from the situation and examine it to find out what went wrong. When we’re at the point of failing, there’s three questions that we ought to ask:

1. What caused the failure?

2. Is it something that can be fixed?

3. If so, is it more beneficial to accept the failure and move on or to try and fix it?

As an example, I recently stepped away from a project in its outlining stage. I had been worldbuilding and outlining for what was supposed to be a horror novel. At some point, it evolved into a train heist story and I found myself stuck in a rut. Before I made the choice to set the project aside, I asked myself: 

1. What caused the failure? The setting gave me the opportunity to write a horror story, but my focus in the outline had drifted away from that and towards an adventure story. I’m not against organic story development, but the project had shifted completely from my original intent and it stopped me dead in my tracks.

2. Is this something that can be fixed? Yes. I could walk my way back through the outline and rework it from the beginning. I could set aside the first outline and start fresh with a new story, new characters, and a more conscious effort to focus on what I had originally wanted to write.

3. If so, is it more beneficial to accept failure or to fix the problem? In this case, I had another idea that I wanted to write, one that I felt was much more tightly focused. I also realized that, while the train heist wasn’t what I wanted to do in the first place, it still had the germ of a good story. In the end, I accepted my failure, set the project aside, and moved on to something else. I still have all the material, so I can come back to it another time, free from any of the frustrations that came from my initial failure.

Of course, a lot of the answers to the first question are outside of our control. Sometimes the “failure” is that we’re depressed, or that our day job has grown more demanding, or that unexpected opportunities have brushed aside other obligations. That’s okay; because failure isn’t negative, we don’t have to beat ourselves up over it. We can accept it for what it is and move on. When I looked over my list of 2017 projects, quite a few boxes were left unchecked. Each one of those was a failure and I did my best to learn from all of them. I don’t feel bad about a single one. 

Neither should you. Next time you feel like you need to quit a project, give yourself permission to fail and then learn from it.

 

About Colton Hehr:

Colton Hehr currently works as a direct care counselor in a residential treatment center for teenagers and adolescents. When he isn’t writing, reading, or lifting, he tries to pet as many dogs as possible. He lives in Norman, Oklahoma with his girlfriend Ariana. Colton’s first professional sale will be in the upcoming Writers of the Future 34.