jessicasteiner: (Bad Writing Day)
From Opening Action to Zee EndI have spent the last week or so preparing a book version of my April's A to Z Challenge posts. The book is compiled, and I've expanded on the posts, cleaned them up, and changed the titles on quite a few.

If you followed my blog through April, there won't be much that's new to you, but it is a new format and I worked hard on it. I hope that some people will find the format useful, with a table of contents that'll take you straight to the topic you're most interested in, and a Createspace version to put on the shelf for reference.

When I uploaded my book to Amazon for the Kindle, I got a rather strange email:

Hello,

We are writing to you regarding the following book(s):

From Opening Action to Zee End by Steiner, Jessica (AUTHOR) (ID:3617383)

During a review of your KDP submission(s), we found content that is widely available on the web. You can do an online search for the content inside your book(s) to discover which sites are offering the content for free. Copyright is important to us – we want to make sure that no author or other copyright holder has their work claimed and sold by anyone else.

To confirm you have publishing rights to and control where you distribute the book(s), please provide all of the following information:

1. The URLs for all websites where this content is published
2. An explanation as to why the content is available online


I got confused for a second, then I had a good laugh. Of course it was available online - it was from my own blog. I sent them an email with an explanation about the blog challenge and confirming that - so far as I knew - my posts weren't available anywhere else on the internet, and it was all cleared up within a day or so.

I have to say that for all that I was taken aback at first, I'm glad that Amazon is checking to make sure that books that are uploaded to their store aren't simply plagiarized material. There wasn't any question or argument once I had explained that it was my own words - they don't seem to be policing beyond that. Overall, I thought it was a good experience, and reassuring to at least some extent.
jessicasteiner: (Blank Paper)
Okay, I wasn't going to double up and instead was just going to finish on May 1st, but then I just decided to go for it and get this finished.

One of the things that I've always struggled with is names. Names of characters in particular. Now, I've already talked about language formation, and there is definitely some information in there that is helpful for making alien names. But what about the rest of the names?

Firstly, I try to think about what sort of name I want. I think about the feeling of the name - should it be short or long, smooth or harsh? Should the name evoke any particular ideas, or feelings? Is there any particular ethnicity or nationality that the character should come from? Do you want to reference anything with the name, such as a particular meaning or historical figure? The choices I make are helpful in settling on a name in the end.

For example, when I named the main character of Dreaming - Prescott Samuel Cox - I was naming a lawyer, from a family of lawyers. I wanted the name to sort of sound like that. I also wanted Sam to be embarrassed of his first name, because it was so traditional and old-fashioned, and so he goes by his middle name. In the Dream world, everyone calls him by his true name, Prescott. It's one way that I differentiate the book between when Sam is in the real world, or in the dream world.

Once I've figured out a few criteria, then I mine various sources for actual names to use. I get names from a couple sources. Sometimes I'll steal a first or last name from a person I know (A few characters' last or first names are the same as one of my clients - but never both!!)

Mostly all I do is google for baby names. There are a tonne of websites with first names that you can choose from. There are also a tonne of websites with lists of surnames by nationality. There are websites that allow you to search by letter, by nationality, by meaning. When you start scanning lists, you will probably find something you like.




I hope you've enjoyed this month and all of my tips. I'll be putting all of these posts together, editing them and fleshing them out, and putting out a book. If you've liked the information in these posts, I hope you like the final version.
jessicasteiner: (Fangirl Moment)
Today I'm going to talk about romance! Because it's a huge part of writing, so it deserves to have a post, I figure.

Now, I'm going to make one caveat, and that is that today's tip comes from the perspective of someone who really doesn't like romance novels. I love romance in other kinds of novels, but I have just never been interested in the genre itself. As such, my perspective here may not apply to that genre. But I'm pretty confident that they work for other genres that happen to contain romance.

I'm sure there are lots of other things I could say, but I can't think of anything at the moment, so here is what I want to talk about:

Never make a character whose only purpose is to be the romantic partner of another character

Every character you create should be a person. There's nothing more boring than realizing that a character was created only to be the partner of your main character, and that they really have no other role within the book than that. They should have desires outside of getting together with your other well-rounded character.

They should do more within the book than simply be the potential and then actual love interest of another character.

It's boring, and it sucks. I shouldn't have to tell you not to do it, but it happens all the time. So don't do it.
jessicasteiner: (Save the World)
We're in the home stretch! I seem to be a tiny bit further behind than I thought, so I might go a bit beyond the end of April.

Today I'm going to be talking about worldbuilding. I have two main tips for this post.

1. Don't over-do it. Leave spaces in your world for things to grow. If you map out every street, building, and flower in a town, and it's vitally important that the heroes be able to run down the street and find an abandoned building to hide in, but you've already established that the nearest abandoned building is four streets away, and it's impossible to get there before the bad guy catch them, you're going to feel hemmed in and stuck. The reader won't know the difference if you make something up on the fly, so long as it makes sense.

Allow your world the room to shift and reshape itself to be the way it needs to, for the purposes of your story, without letting continuity errors creep in.

If you make up too many details before you begin writing, you may have the urge to reveal them all. Make up 15 different religions, and you'll want a representative of everyone in the story. Come up with 30 countries and you'll want to travel through every one, to justify all the work you did. You want to have enough to make the world seem full, without spending the rest of your life doing background work you'll never use.

2. Don't under-do it. You don't necessarily want to just begin with a blank page, either. If you don't expand out your world beyond the borders of where the characters are, then it'll feel like there's nothing beyond those borders and the characters are living on an island. You can include throwaway references, or minor characters, which will show that there's more to the world than what's needed for the purposes of the story. Preparing more than what you're planning to directly use in the story will give your story richness that it otherwise wouldn't have.

Knowing where to begin and where to stop is a very individual decision. Every world and every author is different. All I can say is that when it feels like enough, stop, and if you are writing and feel like you need more, then spend some time expanding your world.
jessicasteiner: (Save the World)
Everyone knows that a story needs to have conflict. In fact, every single scene in your story should have conflict. Conflict is the main point of a story, and if there's no conflict in a story, then there's no story.

But knowing that, if you're like me, then you have a hard time sometimes figuring what constitutes conflict.

Conflict isn't just about having a fight on every page. If your book is filled with scene after scene of people arguing with each other, it'll get boring. Conflict is about your character overcoming an obstacle in their path.

Conflict is when a rainstorm stands between a lover and their date, and they don't have an umbrella.

Conflict is when a character desperately needs money to achieve their goal, but doesn't know where to get any.

Conflict is when a character is tempted to do something they know is wrong, but it'll help them to accomplish something great.

Conflict can be internal or external. It can be with other characters, or with natural forces, or with their own conscience.

A good shoot-em-up battle is fun, too.




Listen to my interview on Adventures in Sci Fi Publishing! I talk mostly about Mortis Unbound, and Star Trek.
jessicasteiner: (Blank Paper)
I can't necessarily say that a novel has to have a particular structure, nor that it even needs a structure at all. This isn't something I've made a specific study of, but I can tell you that I tend to follow the Three Act Structure. And that's what I'm going to talk about a little bit more today.

The main thing that this structure does is to space out the most profound points of change or disasters. Now, a novel doesn't actually have to have three acts. Some novels will have two acts, and some have four. It might even be possible to have five acts. Maybe some readers will be able to point out examples. A particularly epic novel will have more such disasters, and so that determines how many acts you actually have, but generally you'll have three main acts.

The First Act

In the first act, the characters and the main problem of the story are introduced. The characters are thrust into the events of the story. A change takes place (usually as close as possible to the very beginning) from which there is no going back. They can no longer ignore the important conflict going on and must do something about it.

At the end of the first act, something takes place that is a major turning point. The work that the characters have made towards achieving their goal and making the world go back to normal is thwarted in a way that truly changes the perception of the problem itself.

The Second Act

Throughout the second act, which is the main bulk of the story, the characters strive to solve the problem they're faced with. They may still be trying to avoid facing the great sacrifices they will have to make in order to solve the problem. They generally still want to go back to the way things were, and not want to face the fact that the world has irrevocably changed. There should be multiple turning points, keeping the action moving.

Many books get heavy and bloated in the second act. It is often helpful to have another major disaster right around the middle of the book, to help hold up the middle and keep it from seeming too long.

The Third Act

In the third act, the characters are totally committed and they have made firm decisions to solve the problem. They have accepted that they only way out of the mess that's been created is forward. The story moves and builds to the climax, and the main problem is solved, though the characters' world will never be the same.

Making all this happen

Generally what I do before I start is identify the four main turning points - the one that launches the characters into the action, the two disasters at the end of acts 1 and 2, and the climax. Once I identify them, I place them as anchor points in my outline, and build the book around them.
jessicasteiner: (Bad Writing Day)
I know I'm a day behind and... despite the fact that I've been preparing for a 5-day Supreme Court trial starting on April 29th, I will get through this, I swear.

Anyway.

Theme!

If you're like me, you groan when you hear or read this word. I used to enjoy English classes only to the extent to which I was able to a) read a book that I actually enjoyed, or b) write a story. Analyzing books for theme was always one of those things that struck me as relatively pointless, or at least an exercise that was best left to people who liked that sort of thing.

However, identifying the theme of your own novel is really useful for a number of reasons. And I do mean identifying. You don't necessarily shoe-horn your theme in and then try to make your story fit it, but it should evolve organically and become clear at some point in the process. Sometimes, when you type 'The End', but maybe sooner.

So, a couple of reasons why identifying your theme is good:

1. It can help to unify a novel or series. If you know the theme of your series is something like "love can conquer all" then it's easier to ensure that the ultimate resolution of the story is in line with that philosophy. Doing that, will make the story tie together in a more satisfying manner.

2. It gives you something to talk about. When writing synopses, or back cover copy, or even just talking about your novel, it's really important to be able to explain what it's about in a short, intriguing way. Knowing the theme gives you a starting point for figuring out how to do that. Now, you probably won't actually describe the theme in such an explanation, but it can help to focus your mind so it's not just "well, it's about this guy, and one day he..." and ten minutes later your audience is glazing over.
jessicasteiner: (NaNoWriMo: Logic)
Here's a subject I don't see talked about a lot in books about writing - how to plan a series. There's a lot of different things I could say about this subject, but just a few little tips. The main goal behind these tips is to keep the series from getting out of hand, and succumbing to the trap many series fall into - power creep and going on too long.

1. Have some idea of how it's going to end before it begins, and shadow the ending in the beginning. You don't have to have a firm and complete idea of how it will end, but you should have a direction, some thought of how the whole thing is going to turn out. If you have some hint of that in the very beginning of the first book, the entire series will have a tidy feeling, and the ending will be more likely to feel as though it fits the series as a whole, rather than spinning off into strange directions.

2. Make some rules, and keep them. If magic can only be performed with ritual in your fantasy story, then it should always be done with ritual, and you should think long and hard before you give your character the ability to do magic without bothering with ritual. If your science fiction hyperdrive uses wormholes and instant teleportation is impossible, don't give your ship a teleportation drive in book 5 to get yourself out of a fix.

If you set firm rules and keep them, you will avoid power creep in your main character and the reader won't get frustrated with you for breaking your own rules. You won't end up in a situation where your enemies have to get more and more powerful every book to counter the cosmic power you gave your main character in book 3. Rather than breaking your rules, find creative ways around the rules and keep them. It'll hold your reader's interest better.
jessicasteiner: (I Write Therefore I Am)
I talked about this a little yesterday, but let's talk about it a bit more. Not only is it important for your story to be interesting and not predictable. It's also important that the stakes be as high as you can make them.

Don't just make the character's life in danger if you can threaten his entire family. Don't just threaten his family if you can threaten his whole world. Don't just threaten the world if you can threaten the universe.

The higher the stakes, the more you can ratchet up the tension, and the bigger the payoff when the hero saves the day.

That being said, stakes should be appropriate to your genre and the scope of your story. If your story is set entirely in a single small town, even if it is a science fiction story rather than a romance or drama, it'd be strange if the whole universe were threatened. If the story is about a serial killer threatening the town, the whole world is probably not going to be at stake in the end game. But the main character's family and/or loved ones should almost certainly come into play.

Whether the scope of your story encompasses a galaxy-spanning Empire or a single high school chess club, don't make the stakes small and easy to overcome. You want to push your characters to the limit of what they can endure, and then it'll be far more satisfying when they overcome it.
jessicasteiner: (I Write Therefore I Am)
Friday is a bad day for blogging for me, but Sundays are a good day. Somehow this balances out.

Anyway, today's tip is about the two most important questions you should ask yourself when developing a plot for a novel. Though there are probably many more that are also key, these are biggies in my opinion.

1. Does this make sense?

Sometimes when you're writing, especially if you've followed my advice and have a great outline using the organic method, you will get to a certain point in the book where the character is going to take some important action that is absolutely necessary for them to get to the outcome you need.

And there's a little voice in the back of your mind that says "But..."

Because the action, for whatever reason - maybe because of the personality of the character, maybe because of something you've established earlier in the book, maybe because there's an obviously better course of action available - doesn't make any sense.

It sucks. But you have to ask that question, and you have to answer it honestly. If the action taken doesn't make sense, then you've lost the reader, and the whole rest of the book is ruined. It's key to find a way to either make it make sense, or to find another course of action that will still get you where you want to go. Or redevelop the ending in line with the new course of action.

2. Is this the most creative and mean I can get?

No one wants to read a book that's predictable, or where the stakes aren't high. If you fear for the character's life and don't know what's going to happen next, you'll be on the edge of your seat. If the most important decision a character has to make over the course of the book is whether to have white or brown bread on their sandwich, no one will care.

Generally as I'm plotting, I look at my first impulse and throw it away. The butler did it, yes! It's logical because I've already worked out all the great reasons why he would and he had the opportunity. No wait, maybe it's not the butler, but instead everyone will think it is, and instead it's the maid, who seems to have a solid alibi, and besides she's been the love interest of the main character for three books. It'll be devastating when he realizes.

The latter is a far more interesting outcome. Not only is the situation one that'll surprise and shock the reader, but it creates real consequences to the main character. You always want to be throwing away the most obvious and logical next steps and digging deeper, trying to find something that'll create more conflict, more emotional impact, and not be the first thing everyone thinks of. Remember, if it's the first thing you think of, then it's probably the first thing everyone else will think of, too. You don't want that.
jessicasteiner: (Constructive Criticism)
Today's tip is about creating places for your fantasy or science fiction setting.

You can go into more or less detail depending on how much you're going to use your setting in the story. But regardless of whether your entire series is going to be set in one small town, or if a particular place is only going to be used for one scene, you should consider the following five areas:

1. Climate and geography - What is the weather like? What are the major geographical features? How do these geographical features and the weather interact and affect one another?

2. Natural resources, economics, major industries - What sort of natural resources does this place have? What sorts of industries are important in this area? What sort of resources does this area need and has to obtain from elsewhere or go without?

3. History - What important events have taken place in the history of this place? How have those histories shaped the local culture?

4. Culture, ritual, religion - What sorts of cultural or religious rituals are common here? Holidays, rites, cultural events? Are there multiple cultures/ethnicities/religions in this area or is it more monolithic? Think about rituals around food, greetings, gestures, other important interactions like first meetings and visits to friends.

5. Politics - Who are the major political figures? What external and internal political forces are at play? What kind of political system does this place follow? Is the political landscape stable, or unstable?

There are many other areas one might think of, as well. Don't just make up a city that's the same as a place you've been before and give it a new name. Don't just assume things like cultural rituals or political system, like the ones you're used to. Your new places will have more spice and realism if you think outside the box and come up with things that are new and different.
jessicasteiner: (I Write Therefore I Am)
I talked about outlines in yesterday's post, but I wanted to talk about it some more. In the last post, I mentioned having a multi-page plot synopsis before I break it out into actual scene summaries. Today I'll explain how to get to the plot synopsis stage.

1. Write a sentence. I always start with one sentence, the overall idea. I try to include a basic description of the main character, like "A journalist" or "A graphics designer". You also want to include the main conflict. The sentence should be about 30 words or less.

2. Expand it into three major turning points. Every story has one big turning point that launches the character into the story, and a few subsequent disasters, each of which push the story forward. You may want to google the "Three Act Structure" if you want more information about this. I write one short sentence to outline each of these turning points, creating a paragraph.

3. Expand the turning points into paragraphs. Take each of the sentences in your paragraph, and expand it out into a paragraph of its own, adding more detail and surrounding events. You should have between half a page and a full page of summary by this point.

4. Expand each paragraph into a full page. Once again, add in detail and further events, developing connected sub-plots and identifying the key details that have to be included in the story.

By the time you've done this, you have 3-4 pages of synopsis, and have outlined the entire story in some detail, though not down to the actual scene point.

Many people try starting with the first scene and just trying to write an outline chronologically, and then give up in disgust because it's confusing and fiddly. If you are one of those people - or even if you aren't, try this method. You may be surprised by how much easier it is to expand out a story and create an outline when you use this organic method rather than a linear one.
jessicasteiner: (Bad Writing Day)
There are as many ways of planning a novel as there are authors (possibly as many ways as there are novels) but I wanted to share my general process for outlining with you today.

This outlining process is something I do after I've already done quite a bit of planning. I have a strong idea of the main characters and the general plotline before I start doing this. When I work out the plotline, I do it in paragraphs, with the main events (the turning points in the 3-act structure if you follow that method) acting as anchor points in the plotline document. What I have is a multi-page document setting out a summary of the most important points in the story in chronological order.

So with that in mind, the next thing I do is organize the plotline into scenes. I just write a few sentences for each scene, and I usually do this in an excel spreadsheet or something so it's easy to reorganize them into a different order.

I try to make sure I hit all the anchor points approximately equi-distant from one another.

I will often also specify POV in a different column in the table, especially if it's a story with multiple points of view.

When I begin writing, I have a road-map of a paragraph or so, letting me know the main points I need to hit in each scene. Often the paragraph will actually wind up expanding out into more than one actual scene, especially when you factor in cliffhangers that will split a scene into two pieces with a chapter break or other scene in another location in between. However, the outline keeps me from going too far afield or forgetting to establish something that's necessary in a later scene.

How do you do your outlines? Or do you just fly by the seat of your pants?
jessicasteiner: (Solitaire)
This is something I picked up in a book about writing techniques which I think was written by Orson Scott Card. It took me a while to get the hang of it, but I'm going to give it a shot to explain it to you all.

A scene is a bit in the story where something happens. Usually the defining aspect of a scene is that something changes. The character may learn something new, or lose something, or gain something. Scenes are extremely important because they are the points of change that move the plot forward.

When you've just had a big 'omg' moment in a scene, it's useful to then move on to a sequence. This is a decompression point for the character. They are absorbing the big change that just happened, and figuring out what to do next. Sequences are also extremely important because they provide an opportunity for the reader to also take a breath and absorb the import of what just happened, and to whet their appetite. The character decides that they're going to take X course of action because of Y revelation, and the reader wants to know how that'll turn out. Also, a sequence gives the reader a chance to understand why the next scene is taking place - because they saw how it was decided, how the character moved from this big shock to taking action, which will then lead to another big incident.

A story is basically just a long string of scenes and sequences all in a line.

I think the part that really tripped me up at first was that I thought a sequence had to have the same weight as a scene. So if a scene takes a chapter to complete, then a sequence would be the next chapter, but that's not necessarily the case. You might have a scene with a very short sequence which basically just transitions into the next scene. Some sequences may be huge defining character moments that do bear a lot of weight, but not all need to go on for pages and pages.

But they are something that people often miss, or don't recognize. They do them without realizing they're doing them. When you're doing something by instinct, you may not be able to work out what you're doing wrong when things go awry.

Take a look at the next book you read and try to see if you can identify the scenes and sequences. It might help.
jessicasteiner: (NaNoWriMo: Logic)
I ran out of time yesterday because I was still entertaining guests, and I wanted to give this post the attention it was due. The reason why, is because I've been eagerly waiting for the chance to write about this for a long time.

Creating a language for your novel is almost essential, if you're writing about any kind of made-up foreign culture. This applies equally to aliens as to invented cultures on Earth. It adds a sense of realism and believability when the words you use in your novel sound like they weren't just made up randomly, but follow consistent rules - even if you're the only one who knows what those rules are. Even if all you're going to do is name your characters, there is a process that'll help to create that realistic feeling, as if they come from a real language that actually exists.

Now, I don't mean that I'm going to be publishing a full Austejan dictionary to go with Dale Shepard and the Bug Aliens from Outer Space. I haven't made up enough vocabulary, and I have only a very shaky grasp of Austejan grammar. But I have done the steps I'm about to impart to you.

1. Create an alphabet or set of phenoms. Every language has its own set of sounds. Try listening to people speaking different languages - or go ahead and try to learn one - if you don't know what I mean. Generally the first thing I do, is go through the alphabet and eliminate a couple of letters (it doesn't have to be a lot!). Maybe there's no L or H sound in your language, so just cross those right off.

2. Come up with some new sounds. Now that you've eliminated a couple of sounds, try to come up with some combo-letter sounds that are going to be used in the language. Try making up some that don't exist in English! Think about whether sh, th, ch sounds are in there and make up some of your own as well. Maybe do some letter substitutions - for example, K doesn't exist, but instead they will use Ch. Think about how different English would be if you made those changes.

Just keep in mind that if you try to make up a language with only 10 letters you're going to be very constrained. Also if every sound is a combo-letter or sound that has no equivalent in English, no one will be able to pronounce your character's names. A few small changes go a long way!

3. Come up with some rules. These can be pretty arbitrary, but you should apply them strictly. If you decide that all female names end in T, then don't give any males a name ending in T (without a good reason). The consistency of a few simple rules helps the whole thing hang together and even if the rules are subtle enough that no one actually picks up on them, they'll subconsciously feel more realistic than if every name is alphabet soup.

For example, in Mortis Unbound I had clear rules for naming, such that all males ended in a certain set of syllable types, and females had a different rule. I also doubled the letter "I", like in Liiran. I went further and came up with suffixes they used for place names, like -ora for capital cities. Note Laxamora and Talgarora are the main cities named, and they comply with this rule. Laxam is the name of the Empire, and its capital is Laxamora. I came up with a whole list of words for rivers, oceans, and other geographical features, which were occasionally used as necessary in the book.

You can go further than this, make up entire grammatical structures, come up with vocabulary and just keep going as far as you want. A great resource if you want more is Holly Lisle's Create a Language Clinic. I learned a great deal from this and applied it for Mortis as well as the rules for names and places in Dale.
jessicasteiner: (Constructive Criticism)
I'm catching up again! I spent the entire day yesterday in the car so there was no opportunity to do my blog post. So expect to see two posts from me today if I get a chance to do them both.

But on to the carnage.

Most people who've studied creative writing in any sense have probably heard the advice "Kill your Darlings". I first heard it when I was about 17, taking a creative writing course offered through my high school.

Though it seems like a fairly simple piece of advice, it took me a long time to really understand what it means. It means that just because a piece of writing is brilliant, that doesn't mean that you shouldn't cut it if cutting it is the right thing to do. You might weep at your prose, or fall utterly in love with a character, but you might still have to remove it from your novel.

If you ever find yourself editing and think "Oh man, this doesn't fit/I need to cut this scene/This character isn't necessary to the plot but I want to keep it anyway because it's just so great", then cut it anyway.

But save it. You may be able to use it later. That character you adore can be the main character in your next book. That prose you wrote that just killed your heart, maybe you can work it into something else. Or maybe not. But whatever doesn't fit in your current work has to go.
jessicasteiner: (I Write Therefore I Am)
Today's tip is about Point of View.

There are lots of different POVs. The main ones that people use are First Person, Third Person Limited, and Omniscient.

A lot of urban fantasy uses first person POV. Harry Potter is written in third person omniscient. The majority of fiction is written in third person limited. If you don't what understand the different types are, go here, because I'm not going to explain it further in this particular article.

Third person limited is by far the easiest to write. The reason why is that you have the most freedom. You can write one scene from the point of view of the best character to tell it, and the next scene can be from another character's point of view entirely, while the other character isn't present at all.

Omniscient, on the other hand, is far more difficult. You have to be careful not to confuse the reader when you shift from head to head. Because readers are used to limited, you have to be very smooth when you're shifting within the same scene. It took me three reads to realize that J.K. Rowling wasn't staying in one particular character's head throughout a scene, though I thought at first she was writing in third person limited.

First person is pretty easy to write, but has its own limitations. You can't really have multiple characters in a single book all refer to themselves as "I", so if you're going to write first person, you have to set up the book basically so everything important happens in the presence of the main character.

If you write Homestuck fanfiction or are Andrew Hussie, then you can use Second Person. Otherwise, don't do this.

And the tip?

Don't Forget Whose Head You're In.

Whether you're writing in third person limited or in first person, you want to keep in mind the character's unique voice. Remember D for Dialogue? The character's inner world influences the way they see the world, just as it influences their word choice and sentence structure.

You should be mindful of your character's biases, their world view, what they think of as important and what they don't. All of this should come through in adjective choices as you describe the world around them, because the reader is seeing it through their eyes.
jessicasteiner: (Blank Paper)
One thing that you as a writer are likely never short on, are ideas.

Now, you may not be aware of this, but with the development of a few little habits, you'll soon find that you're overflowing with ideas, many of which can easily be turned into the basis for your next plot, or character, or setting.

1. Look around, then think "What If". Whenever I'm out and about, looking at people, looking at the world, I think to myself "What If". I might see a man rummaging through a briefcase, and imagine what it is that he's looking for. Maybe it's the detonator for a bomb! One of the ideas that formed the basis of OtherWhere was being surprised by someone talking on a bluetooth headset, thinking that he was talking to me. I thought "What if phones were even more unobtrusive, and he was seeing a hologram of the person that no one else could see?". Notice the world around you, and question it.

2. Expose yourself to new ideas. I listen to two weekly science and technology podcasts. One of them is the CBC broadcast Quirks and Quarks and the other is The Future and You. Listening to those podcasts doesn't make me an expert on any given scientific or technological advance, but it affords a wealth of ideas. Nearly every episode gives me a thought for a new little tidbit I could include in a science fiction - or even fantasy - story. I'm constantly coming up with ideas as I listen to them. I can always do more research on the subject later to flesh it out if I decide to use it. One of the types of aliens in Dale and the Bug Aliens from Outer Space was inspired by a Quirks and Quarks episode in which they talked about a caste of termite that attacks enemies and explodes to take them out. Reality is stranger than you can possibly imagine.

3. Keep all your ideas. Most of the ideas you get won't be fully-fleshed story plots complete with characters and plotline, ready to go. They will be single sentences, little snippets, just a passing thought that might one day form the germ of something wonderful, or might be totally useless. They will only truly be useless if you forget about them, so write them down! I have heard that some people write all their little tidbits on notecards and keep them in a box. I have a file in which I write them all, in One Note. Each idea is on a separate little tab and sometimes I realize I have related ideas and combine them under one umbrella. It doesn't really matter how you organize them, so long as you do try to keep them all in a place where you can periodically take them out and sort through them.

4. Mix and Match. The best novel ideas involve taking two unrelated and cool ideas, and combining them. Often the two ideas on their own have been done to death, but if you put one with the other in a new way, something absolutely unique will come out of it. Periodically take out your cards or sort through your idea file and reorganize it. Try out how two ideas might work together, or even three. Flesh out some if looking at an idea sparks a new idea.

Any time you want to start a new story, your idea bank will be there. But if you don't keep the seed ideas and let them germinate, cross-pollinate them, and tend to them, they'll never grow.
jessicasteiner: (Solitaire)
I wouldn't try to say that I'm an expert on heightening tension. I know I still have a lot to learn about this topic, but my readers have told me that when they reached a certain point in Mortis Unbound, they couldn't put it down. I hope that means I know something about this.

There's a tonne that could be said about tension.

Obviously you want to start at a certain level and tighten the screws as you go, never quite letting go of that anticipation of what might be coming around the next corner. This will draw your reader on through the story without letting them put it down and forget about it.

On the other hand, you want to give your reader a slight break from time to time. You don't want the tension to remain at maximum the whole time. If you try to do that, it'll lose its effectiveness.

But practically, how do you do this? There are lots of ways, but here's one specific tip.

End the scene at the point of change

This is often known as a cliffhanger, but it doesn't have to be a cliffhanger. The character doesn't have to be literally hanging from their nails, though certainly that's one way of doing it. It doesn't have to be opening a door and not telling the reader what's on the other side. You could reveal what it is - and then move on before the character has a chance to decide what to do about it.

The anticipation of wanting to know what comes next is what will keep your reader turning the pages. Maybe it's finding out whether Johnny will keep the bag of money he just found in his locker, or turn it in to the proper authorities. Or maybe Martha just found a strange green vial of liquid and was dared to drink it by her best friend. Or maybe she just drank it, and...what comes next?

If you wrap up each scene with a nice neat bow, if each chapter ends with a clear decision and then the character heads off to sleep with a clear mind and a clear conscience, each time that happens the reader has the opportunity to put it down and go to sleep. And maybe they won't pick it up again.

Don't give them that chance.
jessicasteiner: (Save the World)
Writer's block is something that I've written about before, but no list of writing tips is complete without addressing it.

Personally, I wouldn't go so far as to say that writer's block doesn't exist. But I do think that it is not a mystical, uncontrollable force. It can be overcome. It can be beaten.

There are two main reasons why writer's block happens, at least in my experience.

1. When something has gone awry in the story.

2. Negative self-talk - aka, the Inner Editor has struck.

If the problem is the first, then it's caused by your subconscious. You know that something is going off, that perhaps there's a big plot hole that you've created, or you know on some level that you're painting yourself into the corner.

I've been affected by this many times. Sometimes it takes me a day to get through the problem, sometimes longer. The main way to avoid it is to recognize it when it's happening, and then to go back through the most recent developments in a draft, to see where things are going wrong. I usually have to back up a few steps and move things in a different direction.

On the other hand, if the Inner Editor has convinced you that writing is far too difficult to move on with and it's best to just catch up on Game of Thrones, then it's you're stuck in a far more difficult situation. It's not writer's block - it's negative self-talk. The only way to beat it is with positive reinforcement.

Write a little, even if it's hard. Tell yourself that writing is fun, that it doesn't matter even if the writing is bad - that you can always fix it later. Tell yourself whatever it takes, but write something. Even if it seems terrible, it's better than nothing.

The best way to beat writer's block, is to write.

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Jessica Steiner

February 2016

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