Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Tip Tuesday: Good characters create story

The other day I reached a sticking point on my work in progress, and couldn't figure out where I'd gone wrong. I'd sketched out my scenes with end goals in mind, and had my hero navigating through the obstacles one by one. Here was my outline with the events neatly laid out. Here were the words on the page, sitting there like dead fish and boring the hell out of me.

That's when I realized I'd committed a mortal sin of writing. My character, the one who the story is supposed to be about, wasn't making the story. He was sitting lifeless in a contrived stew of events. No wonder I was bored!

Chuck Wendig has written a couple good articles about character agency. Per Wendig, agency is "a demonstration of the character's ability to make decisions and affect the story." In other words, story isn't an external factor that happens to characters. Good characters make the story, through their actions, reactions, strengths, and weaknesses.

The most frustrating part of my block was that I had created a rich character with lots of struggles, both internal and external, and tons of investment in the central conflict. And nothing of that was coming out on the page. He was sitting inside this cardboard structure of events, watching, his own actions having no effect whatsoever. He could have gone off on a vision quest in the middle of the scene, and the story would have stayed the same.

I broke my block by doing some free writing. Why was my character essential to the events happening in story? (Hint: up to this point, he wasn't.) How could I rewrite the scene so that it was more difficult for my character? What would his true, unique reactions be to these events? How would they change the outcome of the scene?

Turns out, introducing a different character who made his life harder would be a better way to go. It would bring out the parts of him that had been hiding under a pile of dreck, and bring life to the story again. So that's what I'm working on today.

Next time you run into a wall, where events seem to be spooling out without your character having an effect, take a step back. Get to the essence of who that character is. Now, spin the scene. What events would make this scene harder for this particular person? List some possibilities. Go with the strongest one, and try a hundred words in that direction. If that's working, try a hundred more.

Did this exercise work for you? How do you bring life to your characters and story when you get stuck?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Tip Tuesday: Integrating Dialogue and Action

Recently a writer asked how to make his dialogue more interesting. He found having characters speaking, interspersed with "he said" and "she said", felt repetitive. Yet these dialogue tags are necessary for a couple of reasons. They show us who is speaking and provide a break in the narrative. While ideally dialogue tags are supposed to be invisible (the eye runs over "he said" and "she said"), just like any other overused convention, they can become tiresome to the reader.

But effective dialogue does much more than delineate the speaker. How can you balance the need to know who’s talking when, without the text becoming boring?

Let's look at an exchange that uses only dialogue and simple tags:

"Did you talk to Gino?" asked Starla.
"Naw, haven't seen him yet," said Cinnamon.
"Better watch out. He's on the rampage. Wants his money bad," said Starla.
"Right now I have bigger problems to worry about," said Cinnamon.

What does this exchange tell us? Two individuals named Starla and Cinnamon are talking about a man named Gino, who wants his money. But a lot of information is missing. Where are they? What's happening? Also, the identical structure of each paragraph (dialogue followed by "said [name]" or asked [name]") becomes wearing on the eye. And there's no action, just static dialogue. Boring.

Here's that exchange with more information worked in. Notice also how additional cues are used to show who's speaking:

Starla leaned over the old coot's chest, reaching her arms around to the bar on either side of him. She shook her shoulders lazily. Tuesday lunch was the worst shift, and Denise was a jerk for sticking her and Cinnamon with it. So petty.

The gin-soaked geezer was paying attention to her assets, not her mouth, so she might as well discuss business. She called over her shoulder, "Did you talk to Gino?"

"Naw, haven't seen him yet." Cinnamon craned her neck around to face Starla.  She waved her backside at the twenty-something bling factory on the neighboring stool, her long legs stretched out in front of him.

"Better watch out," said Starla. "He's on the rampage. Wants his money bad." The geezer exhaled his martini breath at her and reached out a shaking hand. Why did they ever think that was a good idea? She slapped it away.

The fellow with the bling opened his wallet then turned it upside down and shook it, shrugging. Cinnamon rolled her eyes. "Right now I have bigger problems to worry about."

Now we have a much more complete picture. The addition of action (Starla leaned, reaching, shook her shoulders) provides movement to the scene. Starla and Cinnamon’s actions also show us that they’re at work, and the nature of their profession. From the visual cues (the bar on either side of him, the neighboring stool), we see the setting. And sensory details (exhaled his martini breath) pull us further in.

We also get a sense of the characters’ attitudes toward their work and current clientele. Starla shakes her shoulders lazily. Cinnamon rolls her eyes at the guy who’s stiffing her.

By including Starla’s thoughts, we also establish that she’s our point of view character. (Denise was a jerk. So petty. Why did they ever think that was a good idea?)

The shift in action makes it clear who’s speaking throughout. In place of a typical dialogue tag, in paragraph two, Starla calls over her shoulder. This adds more action. All this, and “said” only appears once!

Note that you can go overboard with description in dialogue. Depending on the pacing of the scene, sometimes a few quick exchanges with no interspersed action can work. But if you feel like you're watching a ping-pong match when your characters speak in long, uninterrupted blocks, try and break it up.
Dynamic dialogue incorporates action, setting, thought, sensory details, and more to create a rich reading experience. Next time you’re hung up on “said” and “asked”, look for ways to work in these elements.

How do you add vibrancy to your dialogue? Where do you get tripped up? If you have a question about writing you’d like me to answer, shoot me an email at faithvanhorne [at] gmail [dot] com. Thanks for reading!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Who is Burning Man for? Everyone who's interested

"Radical Inclusion: Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community." --From the Ten Principles of Burning Man

I'll preface this post by saying that I've never been the "the Big Burn" in Black Rock City. I attended my first regional, Scorched Nuts, last year, and found it an eye-opening, awe-inspiring experience. Attending the burn by my lonesome, and never having so much as camped on my own before, I was frightened I'd screw it all up, die in the woods, and be a general inconvenience to "real" burners who had to put up with me.

Instead, the friendliest, craziest, most accepting group of people imaginable greeted me with hugs and offers of help and advice. I did my best to return their kindness and gift others in any way I could find: helping set up structures, handing out clementines and chocolate, teaching Tai Chi. I left with a sense of bonding and community, and the knowledge that I could manage not to kill myself in nature for four days. (Yeah, I know that's not much for some people, but it's quite a bit for me.)

I loved it so much that I returned to the same site in October for a first-time burn called The Mosaic Experiment, and brought a virgin burner along with me. He, too, found community there, and returned for Scorched Nuts this year with a new crew.

This month marks the one-year anniversary of my mom's death. In that time, I've gotten closer with my sister as we've grieved together and sought to form a new relationship, as grown-up siblings. At our family reunion this year, the last place I saw my mom alive last year, my sister tearfully told me she'd like to come with me to Mosaic Experiment in October, if she's able.

I was thrilled. My sister's never seen anything like it, and I hope I'm able to share the experience with her.

But when a friend asked if I was planning on bringing anyone this year, I mentioned with excitement how I hoped to bring my sister. My friend, having met my sister one time for a few hours, suggested she might not be "burner material", and I'd be better off leaving her at home.

There have been a number of articles lately about who burner culture is "for". Certainly there's a public perception of who goes (or, in some people's minds, should go) to burns, and I hew closer to that image than my sister. But she has a huge side to her that my friend, in his brief acquaintance with her, hasn't seen.

She's radically self-reliant. Her family hunts and handles the meat themselves. She cans, is incredibly handy, and has been camping since long before my baby steps into the outdoors last year. If there's anyone I'd trust to depend on in the wild, it's her. She embraces immediacy and shines wherever she goes. If ever there was a burn-worthy soul (as if anyone must be deemed worthy) it's her.

So, fuck perceptions of who should be at a burn. I don't know if my sister will be able to make it, but I sure hope so. The magic of burns isn't limited to one type of person, regardless what outside appearances say.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Nanowrimo goes to camp

For the first time this year I'll be trying Camp Nanowrimo. I've posted a few times on here about Nanowrimo, which I've given a whirl. So I'm interested to try the more flexible version.From what I gather, they're trying to bring a summer-camp feel to the project, which is also new for me. I never got the chance to go to summer camp, unless you count Bible day camp, which I don't.

When I've done Nano in the past, not once did I near the 50,000 word goal during the month (I did finish one of my novels after November, though). And while I did probably get more of a word-count boost than I would have without the goad, I couldn't help but feel a little dispirited by never "winning" The nice thing about Camp Nanowrimo, which occurs twice a year in April and July, is that it brings the same sense of community and inspiration as traditional Nano, and also lets you set your own goals and make your own rules.

So, I won't be "cheating" by adding words to my existing novel project, though that's a no-no in November. (Of course the rules aren't enforceable, but it's frowned upon. Goes against the camaraderie aspect.) Also, I can set a more reasonable word-count goal that I might actually reach--exciting! You also have the option to choose "cabin mates". These can be all strangers with similar writing goals to you, or a combination of your friends and strangers. I like the small-group concept as well.

If you're interested in joining, I'll be participating as richuncleskeleton. Let me know if you want to be camp mates!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Sisters in Crime

To help me transition from writing speculative fiction to tackling my first contemporary mystery novel, I've joined Sisters in Crime. Yesterday I attended the first meeting of my local branch, Sisters In Crime of Columbus Ohio. The guests for the May meeting were Lara Baker-Morrish and Annie Murray, both prosecutors for the city of Columbus. Murray is the director of the Domestic Violence and Stalking Unit.

Their talk was fascinating and frightening; it's sobering to realize how much negative impact a stranger can make on one's life if they choose you as an object of fixation. In addition to some fresh ideas for my plot, Murray also shared some of the ways most people make themselves easy victims. Case in point: not putting any sort of lock on one's cell phone. I never really understood the point before. But after Murray detailed all the ways your phone can be used against you (and to track you), I now realize the importance of that basic measure.Granted, if someone's dedicated enough, all but the heaviest personal security won't make much of a difference. But I can at least try not to be a walking turkey.

My only regret is that I had to leave before the meeting ended. I look forward to seeing what all the group has to offer.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Marcon (semi) fitness

Several people have told me they've enjoyed reading my posts on writing and fitness over at Writer's Fun Zone. So I figured I'd post one over here.

As I mentioned in my last post, I attended MarCon this past weekend, where I got to meet up with friends, writers, and other fans. Cons are not the most health-conscious environment (which is like saying water tends to be on the wet side). My general experience is spending a weekend in a convention center with no sunlight, eating way too much at the Con Suite and/or food court, and suffering exhaustion from lack of sleep and overstimulation. So, not the hallmarks of fitness.

However, I did manage to limit the self-damage this time around. Exercise-wise, my weekend didn't start out great, because I had to miss my Friday karate class. Friday I mostly settled in and wandered around the con. However, I did maintain at least a little consciousness of what I was eating. I skipped the restaurant breakfast buffet on Saturday and Sunday, at least.

Saturday is normally a strength-training day. However, I was limited on workout time, because I had so much to do and so many people to see. So instead, I put together a brief interval training workout. I chose interval training because it's an effective workout in a short amount of time, and you can do intervals of just about any aerobic exercise.

DISCLAIMER: Talk to a doctor before you begin any exercise routine. Yeah, I did this, but that doesn't mean you should! I'm in no way a certified fitness expert. Please consult one if you're going to try this!

So here's the workout I put together. I'm easily bored and wanted something that worked my whole body, so I created a varied routine. I jotted down four sets of two exercises. I'd complete the first two exercise, rest, repeat those two, rest, then move to the next set. Here's what I did:

Warm up: jog down to gym from hotel room, stretch in gym

20 squat kicks with 10 lb. dumbbells
10 burpees

20 lunges w/knee lift and bicep curl, 10 lb. dumbbells (10 right, then 10 left)
20 tricep dips, raise up, toe touches

20 side lunges with shoulder press, 5 lb. dumbbells (10 right, then 10 left)
20 mountain climbers

20 alternating-arm back raises
20 reverse crunches, 8 lb. medicine ball (For the second set, I did 20 Russian Twists with the 8-lb ball, but I kept my feet on the ground unlike the badass woman in the demo video)

Cool-down: walk back up to room. The gym was in the basement and we were on the 7th floor, so it was a good length for a cool down. Then I stretched in my room.

The interval part of the workout took roughly 20 minutes, which is just about right for this type of workout. Then after a shower, I got on with the con! That little burst of exercise kept me wide awake for the rest of the day. I also made sure to poke my head out and walk in the sunshine a little each day.

Next time you're at a con, try and remember to take care of yourself. You'll feel much better on the drive home!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

MarCon 49 Wrap-Up

I've still got some post-con grogginess, but I had a good time at MarCon this year. Here were my highlights:

I popped into Cindy Matthews' presentation, The First Five Pages. Matthews talked about how to get your manuscript moving fast, before your potential editor or agent has the chance to get bored.

I attended a fantastic workshop on Writing Law Enforcement, led by Griffin Barber and Alistair Kimble. Barber is a long-serving officer with the San Francisco Police Department, and Kimble is an FBI agent. (In addition, both are published in Eric Flint's 1632 Universe.) They gave us workshop attendees an interesting and informative rundown of the differences between local and federal law enforcement, the human side of their line of work, and some common misconceptions that pop up in TV, books, and movies. Because we were a small group, they took extra time and care to answer my very basic questions. Since I'm tackling my first mystery novel and one of my lead characters is a police officer, I wanted to ensure I got the details right, and Barber and Kimble did a great job filling in my mental blanks. They also handed out awesome swag:

Saturday I attended a workshop on Fairytales and Fantasy, featuring Karen Dollinger and Jillian Kuhlmann. Dollinger later spoke on a panel on the relevance of feminism, which turned out to be a lively but respectful discussion.

Today I attended a reading by Kuhlmann from her debut novel The Hidden Icon. That was followed by a reading of the short story "Good Thoughts" by Chuck Ebert. He has a story coming out soon, the details of which I'll post as soon as I get them.

Plus, I got to exchange brief hellos with Lucy Snyder, Denise Verrico and Gary Wedlund. (As well as other folks, but right now I'm suffering from Con-brain.) I was grateful to reconnect with old friends and learn so much new. See you at next MarCon.