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: (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: (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.



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: (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: (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: (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: (Default)
There's a lot of wisdom out there about writing dialogue. Most of it involves reading things out loud to see if it comes naturally. I can't really offer that as a tip, since to be quite honest I've never done it.

But I do have three tips about writing dialogue for you today.

1. Characters don't talk like real people talk. If you really listen to how real people talk, you'll discover that we speak horribly. Real person dialogue is filled with run-on sentences, poor grammar, and sentence fragments. There is a certain level of good grammar and sentence structure that's expected in all writing, even in dialogue.

2. But don't be stilted! Though characters don't talk like real people, characters also don't have perfect grammar and sentence structure. Unless they're androids, in which case you shouldn't use contractions.

3. Make it different. It's important that all your characters have their own voice, at least to some extent. Some people give each character a particular vocal quirk, but you don't want to go too far with this. If every character has one, it becomes really obvious that you're using it as a device to make your characters sound different.

But it is key to try to make sure that each character sounds unique, and that they don't all sound like you. Think about the character's level of education, their personality, and other traits about them. A poorly educated character won't have the same vocabulary you likely do. A very precise and detail-oriented character will speak differently, choose different words, than a character who's under the influence of a drug.

You can do a lot with word choice, differences in sentence structure, slang, and other small changes, so long as you use them consistently and in accordance with the other things you know about that character.
jessicasteiner: (Save the World)
Today I want to write about creating characters. There are lots of ways to do it! I've experimented with probably half a dozen different methods, and generally speaking I think that different methods work for different people. You just have to find the one that works for you, and don't feel as though you have to use a method that isn't working just because other people say it's the Way To Do It.

For example, one method I see touted a lot is to fill out long questionnaires that ask a lot of fiddly details about the character. I've seen many of them passed around and have tried a few individual questionnaires. For a while I slavishly filled out a questionnaire that was probably 15 pages in length by the time I'd filled out the nicknames and listed all the siblings and talked about the home town etc. etc. It would take me weeks to fill out the damn thing for each character, and I usually wanted to take an icepick to the brain for most of the process.

And then I generally forgot all about it while I was writing. Suddenly the character needed a sibling I hadn't mentioned, or came from a totally different part of the world, or his hair was brown instead of red. If I tried to stick to the original plan, the character became flat and forced.

For many people, this method works great, I'm sure. It probably gets them thinking about the weird little quirks and details and helped them flesh out their character so they weren't two-dimensional. For me, it never did that. My characters tend to tell me about themselves as they write them, and to have a whole lot of details pre-planned hems me in.

What I do instead is have the questionnaire available, and fill it in as the details come to me while I'm writing - not to hem me in, but so I don't forget about it later.

However, there are five things that you should know about your character - particularly main and important side characters - before you begin. They are absolutely key, and they've got nothing to do with hair colour. This is the questionnaire I do fill out for each character:

1. What is the character's goal?
2. What is the obstacle that will stop them from achieving their goal?
3. What is the worst thing that could happen to the character?
4. What is the best thing that could happen to the character?
5. How is the character going to change by the end of the story?


jessicasteiner: (Default)
Jessica Steiner

February 2016

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