Category Archives: nanowrimo

How to Begin: Five Ways to Start your Next Story

Happy New Year!  I hope you have fired up your New Year’s Resolutions, and harnessed them to some goals (remember: the difference between a dream and a goal is a plan).  If you’re hanging out with us, I’m guessing some of your goals have to do with writing.  Since this is the first Novelocity of the New Year, I’d like to help you get started.

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Often times, people get hung up right at the beginning of a new piece.  We know that, if we want to lure readers in and sell the work, the opening has to be fantastic.  This is true.  But when you first put keyboard to monitor, it doesn’t have to be brilliant–it just has to get done.  So, here are five ways to get in there and get writing!

  1. The opening doesn’t have to be perfect for you to keep writing. The ending of the story will suggest what the perfect beginning is.  Don’t get hung up on crafting a hook before you reach the end.  That’s what revision is for.

 

  1. Begin the story as close as possible to the moment when all Hell breaks loose: when the character or world faces the problem that starts the plot.

 

  1. Many authors begin with a lot of back story, character or setting description, or other elements the author needs, but the reader doesn’t. When does the *plot* begin?  Trim as much as possible before that.

 

  1. Can’t find your way in? Write 5 different ways to open the story:  character, conflict, setting or world-building, a different point of view, an image that evokes the dominant emotion or theme.  Dash them off quickly, with just a couple of sentences each, then see which one gets you excited to keep going.

 

5.  Overwhelmed by a big project or a fresh start?  Try setting a timer for 15 minutes, or a word goal of 100 words.  You can write 100 words. . .try it every day, you might soon be writing a thousand!

Wishing you a creative and successful new year!

Ten Tiny Tips to Improve your Fiction

      1. Suddenly, the author removed all occurrences of the word “suddenly.” Why?  Because once you have said it, nothing sudden can happen—the reader already knows it’s coming.

 

      2. “Well,” the author ejaculated, “I think fancy dialog tags are cool!” Er. . .dialog tags are meant to indicate who is speaking, and not to call attention to themselves.  “Said” and “asked” disappear into the text for a smoother read.  I’ll let you get away with a few words per manuscript that express something otherwise non-obvious about how the quote is being said, like “whisper” or “murmur.”  Otherwise, use action tags that show us the character as they speak.

 

      3. Eliminate words that slow the text. Like helping verbs, “seems,” “very,” “really,” and anything “beginning to” or “starting to.”  These rarely add anything to our experience of the scene.

 

      4. Use strong action verbs. Usually, we just say avoid be-verbs, which is still good advice. But what we mean is, look for a verb with a clear, direct impression for the reader of what’s actually happening.

 

      5. Don’t jump POV for no reason, especially to say things like “she never noticed the shadow in the corner of the room.” If she didn’t notice it, who did?  Every time this happens, the reader gets tugged in the wrong direction—away from the character.

 

      6. Begin as close as possible to the moment when all Hell breaks out. This goes for books, stories, scenes, chapters. Readers don’t need nearly as much scene-setting as we often think—and many of them have little patience for it.

 

      7. When you’re in a deep POV, you don’t need phrases like “she felt,” “they saw,” “we heard,” “he thought,” “I knew.” We are already inside the character’s head, this stuff just gets in the way (see point 3).

 

      8. Don’t dismember your characters.  “Her eyes flew around the room.”  Doesn’t that dry them out?  “He lifted up his hoary head.”  (and threw it across the clearing. . .)

 

      9. “Lay” is a transitive verb which requires an object: The hen lay an egg. It laid one yesterday, it has laid one every day this week.  “Lie” is an in-transitive verb:  I lie on the grass.  I lay there yesterday.  I have lain there every day this week.  Yeah, I know, the past tense forms look alike.  You’ll figure it out.

 

        10. And perhaps this is just for the fantasy writers. . . a rider, literal or metaphorical, takes up the reins. A member of the royal family reigns.  No, it’s not just for fantasy– I’ve seen this confused in a few non-fiction articles lately.

Pacing the Novel, Part IV: Building Intensity

Thanks for joining the final installment of my series on pacing the novel.  This column focuses on Intensity:  the weight given to any specific moment in the book.  If all moments have a similar intensity, the pacing feels off.  It might feel too slow if the character getting out of bed, falling in love, driving to school, and slaying a demon are all given a high degree of intensity.  Getting out of bed and commuting are not interesting–they deserve less of our attention (unless she slays a demon with her commuter vehicle) compared to the more significant moments.  On the other hand, it can feel too fast if the demon-slaying is summarized just as swiftly as that car ride.

As you consider where to focus your Intensity in the story, ask, what are the key moments in the story?  For each character?  For the external plot?  Give these the most weight.  They will be moments of personal conflict or drama.  It might be a big fight–it might also be the emotional impact of a significant decision or action.  Think of intensity as the pause at the top of the roller coaster hill. Everything seems more acute–action may be suspended because the reader wants to really experience this key moment, in all of its detail. These are the moments so powerful, so rich, that we want them to last.

In order to showcase those significant moments, cut or summarize smaller moments to decrease their intensity.  Often, authors spend their descriptive and symbolic power on minor actions, irrelevant details or character interactions that don’t turn out to be important.  Readers are aware of this stuff, and, the more time you spend on something in the text, the more important they assume it to be.

So how do we create that intensity?  Use vivid details to focus the attention of the characters and the reader into the scene.  Bring on the sensory input.  Let us taste the blood in the air, sense the fear that rushes the character’s body, or feel the pure delight of the moment their eyes meet.   Even in a battle scene where you want the action to move quickly, you’ll want to bring out a few details that ground the reader in the scene, like those martial arts films where the characters are briefly frozen in time and you can see their potential energy just before it explodes into action.

This is also a great time to pull out your literary training:  symbols, images, themes.  Choose which details, senses and feelings to focus on based on what will resonate for the character and for the plot.

Focus on character.  Give us something more, something deeper about the character and their relationships and reactions.  Significant moments need to have an impact within the book in order to affect the reader–but be careful about going overboard with character emotions.  A character who seems emotionally overwrought can easily distance your readers. Instead, aim for a restraint in the language of emotion, while instead revealing the character’s state of mind through their actions, reactions and dialog.  In particular, don’t try to create intensity simply by adding lots of direct thoughts and inner monologue.  This can make a character seem self-absorbed rather than sympathetic.

Think about the Emma Thompson character in “Sense and Sensibility.”  She seems very reserved, almost cold throughout, but we get hints of the depth of her true feelings, and when she finally cries at the end, the moment has a huge impact.

To increase intensity, dramatize the stakes:  show us why we should care, give us characters worth rooting for, and a relationship to invest in. Why is he right for her?  Why is she right for him?  Use moments where you reveal character depth to draw the reader in even further.

The taste for the balance between movement and intensity changes over time—also varies by genre and by subgenre.  Thrillers tend to be highly scene-focused, with a minimum of sequels where the character process what happens–they will build intensity around moments of discovery or action rather than those of recovery or re-action.  Romance is often the opposite.  Romances are highly sequel-focused, showing character by allowing the protagonists more time to process what just happened and worry about what might happen next.  They build intensity around moments of emotional significance, even if the external action is relatively minor–the touch of a hand could be a key moment in the relationship.

Finally, there are mechanical issues of managing the pace.   Short sentences are often used to convey action and a high level of movement in the work, but long, flowing passages can also carry the reader swiftly through.  Whether you are building intensity or movement, avoid be-verbs or helping verbs that can suck the life out of a scene. Instead, focus on active verbs and specific, concrete nouns that will take the reader on exactly the ride you have in mind–and reveal the richness of your narrative at the same time.

Happy plotting!

Pacing the Novel, Part III: Plotting for Pace

Movement (the rate at which the plot unfolds for the reader) is one of the two key aspects I introduced in part one of this series.  In this article, we’ll look a little deeper at how to get the plot in motion and maintain a fast pace.

the rollercoaster, an oft-applied metaphor for the fast-paced novel

the rollercoaster, an oft-applied metaphor for the fast-paced novel

One of the keys to pacing is the plot turn, a moment when the plot changes direction.  Plot turns come in many varieties:  action, discovery, revelation, dialog, reversal.  The most exciting books use all of these types of plot turns to keep the pace high.  So one turn might involve a physical fight that the protagonist loses, then they might find a clue in an ancient manuscript, then have a conversation with someone that heightens the tension between characters and shows that the character lied in an earlier dialog. . .and so on.

The greater the variety of turns you use, the more interesting the plot tends to be.  Books that rely too heavily on one type of turn tend to get predictable.  Oh–this is the part where the detective asks more questions and gets more answers.  Or worse:  this is the part where the character suddenly puts together two pieces of information for a surprising revelation!  Again.  And again.

Take note:  it isn’t a plot turn if the new element *does not* change the trajectory of the plot.  So if the character gets new information, but continues to do and believe exactly the same thing, it’s not a turn.  If the character loses that fight, and it does not change their relationships, force a change in tactics, or escalate the conflict, it’s not a turn.  If you read a book where many things seem to happen, but none of them seem to be important, it may be because the events are not changing the plot or the characters.

The interval between plot turns determines the pace of movement in the book.  Some authors are very deliberate about how they manage plot turns in relation to page count to create a page turner–one suspense author recommends a turn every three pages, for instance. If you have too many turns in a quick succession, it can create a whiplash effect where the character, and thus the reader, can’t absorb the information.   This can be a very useful tool for analyzing plot and pacing. Take a look at your scene or chapter breakdown:  where can you identify plot turns?  How far apart are they, and is that rate of movement appropriate for the story you want to tell?

The other big reason that stuff happening doesn’t add up to a great read or a fast pace is that plot is more than just a series of events—the events must be connected.  They must form part of a pattern the reader is invested in and interested in uncovering.  The most infamous example of this is the difference between:

“The king died and then the queen died.”  Things happened.  They are big, important things–and nobody cares.

“The king died and then the queen died for love.”  The same things happen, but now there is a connection between them, a very human connection that raises the reader’s investment.

If the reader can’t see the connections between the events, the pace of your story will feel slow or jerky.  The first, most important question the writer needs to address about any story is “So What?”  The king died, so what?  Why should the reader care about that event? Revealing or suggesting connections between events (often relating to motivations for characters) takes a bunch of events and transforms them into a compelling narrative.

Here are a few specific things you can do to help increase the movement of your narrative:

During your synopsis, pay attention to the verbs—the strength of verbs often shows the rate of movement.  If your verbs are all state-of-being verbs (is, seems, looks) that’s a red flag that the plot isn’t moving–and more to the point, that your characters aren’t moving it–creating the links between events that will drive the story forward.

Another way to increase movement is to create a sense of urgency:  a ticking clock that establishes a timeline; a crucible, a forced relationship like a cruise ship, a pair of handcuffs, or a tense marriage that keeps the characters close and creating friction; increase tension on all levels—whenever possible raise the stakes instead of lowering them.  You can raise the stakes by involving more people (increasing the scale of the conflict) or by making the conflict more personal.

Finally, make sure the timeline for both protagonists and antagonists keep moving.  The antagonist is not just waiting around for your character to go to school to make their next move, but is, in fact, working toward their own goals with equal (or greater–remember, we want to escalate the conflict) determination.

In the final installment of this series, we’ll turn toward the other pillar of pace:  Intensity.  Because even the fastest, best roller coasters have that concentrated moment at the top of the hill where the reader hangs, breathless, before the next plunge.

Pacing the Novel, part II: The Five Building Blocks of Pace

Last month, I introduced the ideas of Movement and Intensity as the two key aspects of pacing.  Now, we get to break down how these aspects are created on the page.

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There are five basic types of prose you’ll use to build your scenes, and each one has different properties in creating the pace of your book.  I have listed them here in order of slowest to fastest movement.

  1. exposition and inner monologue

2. description

3. dialog

4. action

5. summary

1. Exposition and Inner Monologue

First of all, why lump these two things together?  Exposition basically means explaining something to the reader.  Inner monologue *explains* what your character is thinking or feeling.  Exposition usually includes backstory, history of the world, explaining how things work, why they work or what they mean (along with many other things).  Exposition and Inner Monologue are a step outside the story completely.  They stop movement in its tracks.  Nothing happens during these types of prose.  This is why you will be told to avoid info-dumps and other large chunks of exposition.  But in small doses, you’ll probably need them.  How can you express character thoughts and feelings without inner monologue?  Lots of ways–most of which are much more engaging than just reading about someone thinking.

the first way is. . .

2.  Description

Like exposition, Description stops the movement dead.  But in this case, it does so by engaging more deeply with the world–the setting, characters and situation–of the narrative.  Description is critical for  number of narrative purposes (revealing your world, engaging the reader’s senses, developing theme, planting clues–jeez–maybe I should just write a blog about that all by itself).  One of the most critical things your description can do is to reveal your character’s mood and attitude, ie, to show how they are feeling and what they are thinking about without you needing to explain it.

“A knife lay on the counter, long, clean, sharp:  the most beautiful thing in the room.  Just the thing for slicing open a ripe fig, or a bare arm. . .”

Description is one of your most powerful tools for building Intensity.

3.  Dialog

Dialog reads in real-time.  It is as if the reader is sitting in the back of the room, eavesdropping on a conversation.  This is why bad dialog is so very deadly to prose.  Imagine being stuck in the most boring committee meeting ever, without being able to leave, speakers droning on about things you don’t care about, sharing information in dull and direct ways, asking or answering questions that are purely factual with no sense of personality, power dynamics or conflict.  Dialog can be a fantastic tool for creating tension, revealing character, and propelling the plot. Use it wisely.  It can be a tool of either Movement or Intensity, and ideally, is used to support both.

4.  Action

Action is when things are happening on the page.  It is rarely a simple matter of lots of specific verbs and short sentences, although those are important for building Movement.  BUT!!  the right kind of action–clear, specific, character-driven, will propel your book at a nice clip with a high movement ration.  And the wrong kind of action–fuzzy, minor, external to your characters–will tend to slow things down abruptly.

“He walked across the room toward the door. He reached out for the doorknob, and grasped it.  He turned the doorknob and opened the door, then walked through it, closing the door when he got outside.”

Booo-ring.  If all you need is for this guy to leave the room, then just do it.  “He walked across the room and out the door.”  Done.

In fact, including minor actions can be a way to create Intensity.  You can use minor action in dialog tags to reveal character’s thoughts and feelings and to show their relationship to each other.  You can use minor actions in a critical scene to create suspense about the major action or revelation about to happen.  If the act of getting to and opening the door is, itself, important, then breaking down the action into smaller bites can bring the reader deeper into the moment.

“She crept toward the door, extended her hand slowly for the knob, but held back.  She caught her breath, her lip pinched between her teeth, and extended her hand a little further. . .”

You’ll notice I also used much stronger verbs for this, and worked to invest the character’s attitude about what she’s doing.  You can also incorporate description into passage of action in order to increase their impact on the reader.

5.  Summary

For key moments in the book, you’ll want to use dialog, description, and action to create strong scenes.  But for transitions or less important passages, you don’t need to linger.  While description can pause a moment indefinitely, and dialog can move it in real time, summary can make hours, months or years pass in a heartbeat.

“Two weeks later, tired and hungry, they arrived at the castle.”

If the journey is important, give it a scene.  If the only important thing is where they went and how long it took to get there, summary can do the job.  The caveat here is  that, if the passage of time is important, you’ll need to make sure the reader grasps how long has passed, otherwise summary can make time pass so quickly that the reader thinks only a moment has passed between the last scene and this one.  Look for other markers to indicate the length of time.  (think of sensory details like the length of someone’s hair or beard, visual or auditory cues to the change of seasons, etc.)

Next up:  Plotting to manage pace!

 

 

6 Ways to Stay Motivated to Write

Whew–that was a great NANOWRIMO, wasn’t it?  And now you’re all done writing for a while–time to relax and get caught up on Game of Thrones. . .well, not if you plan to make writing more than a once-a-year binge.  As with diet and exercise, and pretty much all things you want to stick with and get better at, regular practice with writing will make you a better writer. It will give you more material to offer to a wider variety of readers (whether through traditional publishing, indie publishing, or your personal site).  I’ve found that, the more I stay in the zone, the more I want to be there, and the faster I can get back when I have to leave to say. . . go to the day job, feed the pets, or make another PB&J for my next session.

  1.  The easiest thing to do is to maintain a habit. If you’ve been doing NANO, even if you didn’t complete the full 50K, you have established a habit of writing on a regular basis.  Keep doing it!!
  2.  Pick a chunk of time that works for you.  If you’re not already in the habit, find a space to make it easy.  perhaps this is first thing in the morning, when you are fresh.  Get up early and give yourself that half hour to write.  Commit to it!
  3.  Or. . .pick a word count you know you can meet.  250 words a day. That’s only a page–you can do that, easy!  And if you do it every day, you’ll have a book by the end of the year.  But some days, you’ll write more.  Don’t let yourself slack off.
  4.   Find a partner and agree to keep each other focused. Report in on a regular basis via whatever means works best for you. Also check out the #1K1H challenges on Twitter, where writers around the world look for some online buddies to write a thousand words in an hour.  #1K1H at the top of the hour–go!
  5.  Focus on the fun parts.  Sometimes you get to a part of the book that frustrates or disappoints you. Instead of letting that be an excuse to go play video games, think about the next part that will excite you.  Let that cool scene or thrilling twist be the carrot you’re working toward as you write through the tough sections.
  6.  Stuff happens.  You get sick, you lose power, you miss a few days of writing for one reason or another.  Don’t let a day or two, or even a week or a month signal the end of your commitment.  Even if you feel bad about the time you were *not* writing, the only way to get back to it is to sit down with the empty page.  Avoidance doesn’t make it any better.  Take a deep breath and get moving.  Half an hour.  250 words.  You can do this. You know you want to.

NaNoWriMo Tips from Twitter

Hi! Beth Cato here. I’m not doing Nanowrimo this year–I have novel edits due by December 1st and a bunch of other stuff–but I fully believe in the power of chomping through 50,000 words in November. Nano is what started me writing again as an adult. I wouldn’t be where I am now without it.

So, it’s made me especially happy to see a supportive Nanowrimo community on Twitter. I’ve tried to do my part, too, doing several posts a day to encourage folks to make their word counts. Here are selected tweets from the start of the month.

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#Nanowrimo participants! You’re writing. That makes you an author. It’s that easy, & that hard.

As you start #Nanowrimo, remember, everything is better with ninjas.

#Nanowrimo It is totally fine for your 1st draft characters to go by 3+ names every time they are mentioned. #nanotips

When doing #Nanowrimo, try to work ahead early on. A higher word count gives you a safety cushion for later.

There will always be toxic people who are incapable of supporting your writing. Be true to yourself. Write on. #NaNoWriMo #NaNoWriMo2015

I stopped writing for about 10 yrs because of family pressure & teacher scorn of fantasy. #Nanowrimo is what pushed me to write again.

If you’re doing #Nanowrimo & on @LiveJournal, check out http://nanoljers.livejournal.com/. They were my support for years of Nano! #NaNoWriMo2015

Meal plan for #Nanowrimo! Use a crock pot for meals; freeze leftovers in packets. Stock up on quick-fix frozen food & healthy snacks.

If you need crock pot recipes for #NaNoWriMo, I have 200+ on a Pinterest board: https://www.pinterest.com/bethcato/crock-pot/
#NaNoWriMo2015

In #Nanowrimo, remember that cute critter sidekicks add lots of fun & surprises for you & your characters. #NaNoWriMo2015

Give yourself permission to write a sucky rough draft during #Nanowrimo. Don’t get depressed; laugh! Take notes for revising later.

#Nanowrimo folks: reminder to back-up your story via cloud/email yourself/dark magic ritual/etc! Do it right now! #NaNoWriMo2015

If you’ve written even 100 words for #Nanowrimo, you accomplished something grand. Be proud of yourself!

For #Nanowrimo, some people are plotters. Others pantsers. No wrong way. Do what works for you for this project.

Don’t delete during #Nanowrimo, no matter how awful it seems. Revisions come later. Just keep going.

#Nanowrimo: don’t give up just because you miss a day. A week. Weeks. Life happens. Write on, even outside of Nov.

Don’t listen to people who sneer that #Nanowrimo writers aren’t REAL. I used it to start. So have many pubbed authors.

#Nanowrimo is a great chance to start a project, but don’t stop on Nov 30. Keep writing. Revise. Dream.

If you hate your #Nanowrimo rough draft, that’s normal. Most pubbed authors feel the same about their 1st drafts. Seriously.

 
Clockwork Dagger
Beth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She shares the household with a hockey-loving husband, a numbers-obsessed son, and a cat the size of a canned ham.

She’s the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER (a 2015 Locus Award finalist for First Novel) and THE CLOCKWORK CROWN from Harper Voyager.

Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.