November is National Novel Writing Month and 2012 was my first NaNoWriMo experience. Since I had just handed off my first novel to an editor/writing coach and my beta readers for that were clamoring for book two, I needed incentive to get started on the requested sequel. While I waited to hear from the editor on what is now book one I thought I should see what the second title might look like. The entire process of NaNoWriMo, just writing at an all out pace, was so different from the very long process book one had taken (check out Beginnings, part two). Fifty thousand words in thrity days seems like a lot. IT IS. The suggested average number of words to write each day was 1,667. While that sounded reasonable there were days when my word count was either zero or less than 500. There were days when I wrote 4,000. However it was through this dash just to get words down that I discovered several things. First, in the effort to meet word counts I settled on writing individual scenes rather than write the story ‘from beginning to end’. This freed up my imagination in unexpected ways. Second, I realized the possibility that The Stone’s Blade was more than just a trilogy, and the storyline solidified the need for an open-ended series(side stories, background stories, etc are all possible – IF I want to do them). More surprising to me was that while madly writing scenes to be used in book two, some minor characters (barely mentioned in book one) popped up again in some very exciting and unexpected ways. I am still amazed that somehow plot hints/twists, characters, etc. were already in book one without my consciously having written them. Each has become vital in book two. A new character actually shocked me when she made her appearance in this draft of book two. By just smashing out scenes with a tight time line, no restraints on whether or not a scene will work or actually be used or really caring about the specifics, I have truly let the characters tell me what to write. It has been a freeing experience. I now have more ‘story’ to work with while I am in a semi-editing phase. There are many more scenes to write to smooth out transitions and develop characters and subplots. Overall, NaNoWriMo was exhilarating and I plan on competing in 2013 – two possibilities offer themselves as starting points – book three of The Stone’s Blade series or a stand alone title which came to me in a dream (no kidding!). I am planning to have book one, The Stone’s Blade: The Blood, published by the end of the year (2013) and book two, thanks to NaNoWriMo, to the editor by October 31st so I can be moving forward when November 1st dawns.
Almost one year ago I went to coffee with my daughter and a friend of hers and that was the beginning of my “getting off the beach”. February 2012 was a turning point and I get to blame my middle daughter, Kristina and her underhanded methods to pass on the manuscript for The Stone’s Blade: The Blood to Liz Beerman, who was then on the Board of Directors for the Colorado Independent Publishers Association. The coffee date happened in a rather convoluted route. Kristina was introduced to Liz Beerman at a ‘women authors’ book discussion group prior to Christmas 2011. It was there Liz presented her recently published book Beached for the group to discuss and purchase. Kristina was fascinated and encouraged by the topic Beached covered. Essentially getting back in the swim when life leaves you beached. Kristina purchased several copies as gifts for specific people she thought were stuck or ‘beached’ and were in need of direction to get back to living their lives or just move on to the next moment – including me. More about that on a personal level later. Evidently in the discussion time after the book presentation Kristina mentioned that her mother (me) was writing/had written a book and was frustrated by the submission black hole. Now, Kristina knows the story line of The Stone’s Blade as she is my first beta reader and I ran options through her whenever I got blocked or things weren’t quite working the way I thought they should. So it was on Kristina’s enthusiasm that Liz requested a chance to read the manuscript.
When Kristina came home she only talked about Liz and her book. A few days later my dear daughter asked me to send her the complete manuscript so she could read the entire piece as I had rewritten the last three chapters since her last reading. Unbeknown to me Kristina did not even open the attachment but sent it directly to Liz. When Liz finished, she told Kristina she had to talk with me about the manuscript. It was at this point that Kristina fessed up and demanded that I find the time to have coffee and a discussion with Liz. At this time I was working as an assistant office manager for a CPA firm and it was early February – a rather busy time and it was only going to get busier. I get pretty stressed out for the first four months of every year but this was an opportunity I could not waste so I said yes.
Imagine my surprise when Liz said she loved the story and believed in the characters. This was not a member of my family or even a close friend who was positive about my efforts. Liz had no ulterior motives/familial responsibilities to like the story. I was speechless. Liz asked me if I thought it was ready for the next step. I explained that I could edit for the next 50 years and it would not be ready but that I also knew that I could not edit it anymore. I had started sending it out to agents to no avail. It felt like there was a black hole sucking it away with zero response. I’m not sure the agents even opened the e-mails let alone looked at the cover letter or first pages they had requested. I did get one response in the almost two years of attempts. I really thought that this agent was a good match as her website stated she was looking for a new author with a science fiction/ fantasy having a hint of romance in the story line. I read up on her and the works she had successfully gotten published then worked for six weeks to craft the best cover letter possible. What I received in return was a criptic “I don’t work in that genre”. I went back to check her website and the request for scifi/fantasy with a romantic flavor was still there. Where did I go wrong? I don’t know but I got angry and decided that since no agent wanted it I was going to figure out a way to publish it myself. Liz was delighted with my desire to have it published and asked pertenent questions such as who was my audience, 14 and up, and why did I want to publish it. While I have no illusions of making millions or being on the best sellers list, I do want people to read, to get to know these characters and participate in their stories. With that in mind Liz invited me to attend the next Colorado Independent Publishers Association (www.CIPA.com) meeting the following week.
The meeting offered chances to listen, learn, absorb, and network. I was hooked. Over the next few months I found editors and writing coaches, graphic designers, photographers, book cover designers, and so much more. This organization continues to amaze. I am grateful for the impertenance of Kristina and the encouragement of Liz.
At this point the manuscript is in the hands of Melanie Mulhall at Dragonheart Writing and Editing for content and storyline edits – after two months of directed coaching to do more self editing of the manuscript because Melanie thought I was capable of doing it once I knew what to look for. What an amazing learning prossess that has been! The cover design is coming together within the imagination and talents of Nathan Fisher with Scifi Book Cover Designer. I can hardly wait to see what he has to offer. Both of these individuals have responded positively to the story and see the possibilities of more than just a trilogy (sometimes I am just overwhelmed and still cannot believe that peoople outside my direct family actually like this). The plan is that publication will take place later in 2013. I’ll let you know the release date when I know. Still a lot of work to get done. Writing and publishing a good book is not an overnight event. To do it correctly and well takes time. It will be worth it, I promise.
Now for the personal connection with Liz’s book. I am reading it again, one year after I received it and I see new things. I now realize that even though I had a job at this time last year I was indeed stuck or beached, unsure of where to go or what I wanted to do or even how to get out of the job I’d had for almost eleven years. At the end of May 2012 I sat down with my boss and the office manager to discuss my future. By then I had the confidence to state that I did not want to go through another deadline (in September) and knew that August would be the perfect time to train someone to take my position. I want to thank the entire office for supporting my decision. My last day was August 31, 2012. My new life began on September 1, 2012. I sleep better, am relaxed, and am happier with myself than I’ve been in years. That’s an important point – happier with myself. My family is happier as well because I am not stressed out – I evidently look younger, too which is not a bad trade off for changing careers. I wake up every morning excited about writing, excited about the future.
By ‘connecting deliberately’ with Liz Beerman and the people at CIPA and by ‘rethinking my way’ in leaving my job to do what I love to do, I am no longer stranded on a beach but joyfully diving in and out of the waves. You need to read her book.
You can contact Liz Beerman at email@example.com and order your copy of Beached: Get back in the swim when receding tides leave you high and dry by L.R. Beerman.
Nathan Fisher can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Check out the Colorado Independent Publishers Association at www.CIPA.com
Again, essay written a number of years ago but the idea still holds true.
JUST KILL THE PUPPY!
At my first writer’s conference I participated in a First Chapters class with Paris Bonds. We read aloud the first chapter of our stories then discussed our impressions of each. When the first reader’s kidnappers killed the family dog the entire room protested; “Don’t kill the dog!” He had two reasons for killing the dog; 1) to show the American reader that pets are perceived differently in other regions and, 2) to make sure the reader really disliked, even hated the villain. He succeeded.
After reading my piece I was asked what was so disagreeable about my antagonist. I didn’t have a tangible reason, so my story lacked a real villain and the character was flat, though he had potential. At the time I couldn’t come up with a way to make him really disagreeable but I promised to work on it.
Several readings later a female protagonist listened over the phone as her abusive boyfriend broke her puppy’s legs one at a time (we squirmed at the excruciatingly clear details). Though a bit much, it illustrated the point that abhorrent actions or words by your antagonist made it difficult to like him/her. Much discussion was held on finding plausible reason for each story’s conflict. We don’t need to “kill the puppy” in everything we write; however, if you don’t have a good reason for conflict your characters and story have no motivation to improve, excel, overcome, etc.
The last reading had us all confused about which character was which. We wanted something solid to base our decision on and there was nothing. One participant finally stated emphatically, “Just kill the puppy!” We all laughed but we wanted to know who the bad guy was and get on with the story.
All this made an impression as I struggled to find a motivation for my protagonist to hate the bad guy – without killing her dog. I questioned whether I could come up with something that strong – until I was on my way home.
A fellow conference attendee Chris rode with me and took notes as we discussed the various sessions we attended. Somewhere outside of Raton, as we bantered ideas about my problem I hit and killed a coyote. It was obviously young, perhaps 5 to 6 months old – still a puppy. I was very upset by this incident – though if I’d tried harder to dodge it at 75+ mph I would have rolled the car and injured or killed the both of us.
As the adrenaline seeped away I began laughing. Chris thought I’d really lost it until I said, “I just killed the puppy!” Even though I felt awful about it, the point was driven straight through my fender and pocketbook. I had to find reason for conflict in my story or I might end up killing more coyotes. Several weeks later, almost $1,000 poorer, I picked up my mended vehicle, and came up with a reason. It has helped flesh out the plot and given new life to the characters and the story.
As writers, we need to create believable characters; characters that have depth, with conflicts, doubt, and wills of their own. If two characters are supposed to dislike each other then we have to know the reason – and it’s got to be reasonable or, at least, understandable to the reader. We don’t have to kill puppies, but we do have to look at our story’s society and decide what actions or behaviors would be considered abhorrent enough to cause a clash between the characters. Then, we decide if an explanation is needed to clarify why it is abhorrent to the protagonist. For example, if your society was botanically sensitive, you could have the antagonist cut flowers and openly display them in defiance of the story’s cultural standards.
Being sensitive to your reader’s reactions, too, will help you discover how bad your bad guy is, such as the dog getting killed in the first story of the First Chapters seminar. If we had all been raised in a social structure that did not place pets, especially dogs, so close to our heart, we would not have reacted quite so sourly to the dog’s demise. But, the author got the reaction he was looking for and it carried his story forward.
So the next time your story or character seems a bit flat what can you do? Have your antagonist send a bouquet of posies to your heroine, crash an ax through the casket at a funeral, shout where silence is revered. But, don’t forget your villain must have a logical reason for doing so and it must fit in the story. Also, the conflict should move the story along and provide a basis for the characters interactions. Your hero doesn’t always have to solve the conflict. Real life is not like that and our stories don’t always have nice clean happy endings.
Though I wish I hadn’t hit the coyote I will never forget to find the motivation for my characters to move through their stories and readers to continue turning the pages.
A conversational essay written long ago (2007) and, though the technology has changed a bit, still has meaning, to me at least:
Computers, Bread and Tents
Okay, I admit I’m somewhat computer-challenged. However, I’m not totally without skills or understanding when it comes to working on a computer but a few years ago my husband, Bob, was interested in finally upgrading our nearly 10 year old computer and I needed to use it to update some of my drafts. This was how the conversation went . . .
I wanted to transfer some of my recent handwritten (gasp!) notes to one of “My Documents”. Bob was not in the office, the desk top computer’s screen showed various windows open, the topmost was an “Away Message” – “The computer is working – I’m not. BBL”. BBL was patiently translated by my fourteen-year-old daughter as ‘Be back later’. Peeking out behind this window little flying sheets of paper were being inserted into a folder. Rats! He’s either backing up the machine (which hasn’t been done in months) or he’s downloading something. I ran upstairs to find him – watching TV.
“Bob, how long is the computer going to take?”
“Nine hours! I thought computers were supposed to be fast. That’s all night.”
“Probably.” He calmly flips the channel due to a commercial break.
“What’s it doing?”
“Down loading an 875 megabyte program so I can back up things easier.”
I have no real concept of numbers that large, so, “How big is that in something I can understand.”
“About four hundred three and a half inch disks.” He’s still staring at the TV.
All I can think about is the article edits I’m trying to finish – a few hundred words at most. “We don’t have four hundred disks.”
“I don’t need four hundred disks, I can put it all on one DVD; after this program downloads.” He changes the channel again.
I’m not sure how to respond. “Nine hours?”
“Yep.” The TV flashes through eight or ten scenes from various programs.
“So, I can get on in the morning?” I’m hopeful.
“Right after I back it up” He changes the channel again. “I’ll let you know.”
“Okay.” I go find my pen and spiral notebook and start writing.
The shower is pulsing, beating at the sore muscles on my back. Characters play out a scene in my head. I need to get to paper or the computer. Bob pokes his head around the curtain. “Join you?”
“Not today, how’d the download go?” I really want to get this new scene down before it fades.
“Fine, but I don’t have enough room to open it.” He talks through the shower curtain.
I try again, “You had enough space to download it but not enough to open it? Can’t you just click on the ‘open’ and use the program?”
“Well…it needs room to expand.”
“So the program comes with yeast?” I was being flippant but how else could I wrap myself around this concept?
He responds enthusiastically, “A lot of yeast!”
“So the computer’s like an oven?” I rinse off and put my hand out for a towel.
A towel is dutifully placed in my waiting hand. “Well…no, the program needs to be told certain things before it can be used.”
All wrapped up I step out of the shower, “Use a different analogy then, if baking bread isn’t good enough.”
He looks thoughtful, then, “It’s like a . . . a tent.”
“A tent?” Let’s hear him explain this.
“A tent comes in a sack, like the program I downloaded.”
“Okay.” I grab a second towel and start on my hair.
“When I get the tent to the camp sight or the computer, I need room to open it and lay out all the pieces, the tent itself, the poles, stakes, the awning, etc. That’s what I don’t have right now, room to lay it out.”
“If you had the room, then what:”
“Then the program asks where I want to put it. I say, ‘over here’.”
I assume this means he tells it on which drive or such to set up this ‘tent’.
“Then, it asks if I want to set it up now or later. I say now and it stakes out the tent, puts in the poles and then asks if I want to put the awning on now or later.”
I interject, “If you said later, and then it started to rain after you’d gone to sleep, can you add the awning then?”
“I think I understand now. If I want to download a program, I really should make sure I’ve reserved the campsite first.”
“Well, yes.” He seems a bit hesitant.
“Didn’t you do that?”
“I forgot about the trash can.”
“The trash can? What’s the trash can got to do with the campsite?”
“It’s taking up too much space.”
“So throw it out.”
“I’m doing that.”
“How long will that take?” I turn off the water – he’s evidently not going to take his shower yet so why waste it.
“About forty-five minutes.”
“Then what?” I still have to fix breakfast so I can wait a bit longer.
“Then, I hope there’s still room at the campground and I can set up the tent.” He hesitates just a bit. While I wonder what the ‘but’ is. “Unless I have to download it again.”
Ah ha, the ‘but’. “Rats, that’ll be another nine hours, right?” I’m never going to get the rewrites done.
“Yep, so I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to get on sometime late tomorrow night.”
“Let me know.” I pull a pair of jeans and a sweater from the dresser. I wonder if he remembered to pack a sleeping bag? I think I’ll skip this camping trip, it’s taking too long to get there. Where’s my spiral notebook?