An anecdote, if you will.
In my late teens, I attended my first writing class. We were an eclectic group. Fiction writers. Poets. Even a few journalism enthusiasts. As an ice breaker, the teacher asked us to speak about our favourite books. I groaned. I always hated this question. I never knew how to answer. Could I rank a Hemingway above a Wilde? A Chekov above a Poe? How could I possibly decide?
The class went around, dropping names. All the big shots emerged. Shakespeare. Tolkien. King. Plath. This went on until we landed on a poet, a lanky boy in black who declared, “I don’t have a favourite book. I don’t read. I don’t want anything influencing my style.”
My first reaction was to stare. My second was to cry blasphemy. A writer who does not read? The idea was as foreign to me as a pianist who does not listen to music. I might have recoiled. I might have made a face. His answer lit a fire in me. When it was my turn to speak, I stood and said, with equal vehemence, “I don’t have a favourite book either, because I read everything.” I said this as though I had something to prove.
But why did I have such a reaction? Why did I feel such a drawing desire to rebut? In that moment, I believed, with every ounce of my being, that my answer was more correct than his. That a writer should always read, and not just read, but read widely.
The Well of Knowledge
One might claim that a writer does not need to read to write. This is true. Writing, after all, is merely a form of communication, and everyone knows, to some degree, how to communicate. My poet classmate, who did not read, still knew how to write. He understood sentences, and structure, and had creative ideas.
Yet writing does not happen in isolation. Not entirely, anyway.
Every piece of contemporary writing is a result of thousands of years of literary history—traditions that have percolated into our collective consciousness over time. Every genre is a plethora of established archetypes, patterns, and expectations. Writing itself is a transformative craft, constantly evolving, built on top of and alongside the ideas, styles, techniques, and successes of our writing peers and predecessors.
And herein lies my answer:
I read widely because I want to be influenced. Yes, I can write without reading, but to do so is to refuse the deep wells of knowledge sitting in my very backyard.
Learning from the Field
For writers, reading is akin to gaining field experience. The wider you read, the broader your horizons, and the better you understand your craft. Reading allows us to learn what has been done, what has worked, and, just as importantly, what has not worked. Better yet, it allows us to witness tools, techniques, and methods in action.
See, every literary genre has areas in which they excel. Prose does not read like a play does not read like poetry. Prose might prioritize narrative arc over imagery, whereas poetry might do the opposite. I am predominately a science-fiction fantasy novel writer. Yet every time I venture into genres outside my own, I find a wealth of transferable skills to add to my writing arsenal.
Graphic novels, for example, taught me how to better show. Subtle changes in lighting, angle, and colour can flavour a scene. A smile in sunshine feels different than a smile in the rain. I do not have pictures in my novels, but I have description, and that is a close enough approximation.
Poetry, on the other hand, made me more aware of connotations. An eternity of symbolism and cultural significance stands behind the word “rose.” This has made me more careful of my word choices in general.
And so on and so forth.
Let’s go back to that classroom.
It was not as though I did not understand my poetic classmate’s concerns. Originality is highly emphasized in all creative fields.
But what is originality anyway?
I would argue that originality is not so much invention than transformation. It does not spring from nothing. Rather, originality happens in reaction to pre-established norms. Fresh genres don’t pop out of nowhere. They are derived from existing ones. New voices don’t arise from the void. They counter traditional ones. To be original, you must first learn what is not original, per se.
Once you know of what is out there, you can change it. You can play, experiment, chop things up and put it back together in fascinating ways. Genre fusion, mixing and matching, purposeful deviations in structure and narrative—these are but a few examples of what you can try. See that familiar cliché? Invert it. That well-crafted sentence? Break it up. That hero’s journey? Apply it to contemporary romance instead.
To quote Dr. Seuss, “The more you know, the more places you’ll go.” If you’re worried about originality, don’t be. Reading widely can inspire originality rather than detracts from it.
Reading to Write
So, how does one begin to read widely? And how does one reap its benefits without writing hundred-page dissertations on craft? There is a lot out there, and our time is finite. No one wants to sift through every book in history on the off chance of finding a cool turn of phrase.
One of the safest ways to branch out is to mix the familiar with the unfamiliar. Take a trope, setting, or archetype you enjoy and seek it elsewhere. Enjoy romance novels? Try romance poetry. Enjoy strong voices in fiction? Seek strong voices in memoir. See how they differ. See how they are familiar. See where they pull, where they push, and how.
Great. Now, get active. Ask questions. When we read as a writers, we are not simply consuming a product, but actively considering its creation. Look for those “aha” moments where your brain snags, where you find yourself reading the same passage over and over again. These are moments where something resonated. Then, consider: Why did I react the way I did? How did the writing evoke such a reaction? Do I want that for my own writing? How can I work that into my own writing?
And when you have those “oh no” moments (which you certainly will), ask yourself similar questions: Why didn’t I like this? What happened? How can I avoid making the same mistakes? A negative experience, after all, is just as important as a positive one when it comes to learning.
An analogy, if you will.
You are in a workshop. Here is your project. Here are your tools. You chip away at your project using your tools. You become excellent at it. Then, one day, a new wing springs forth with new projects and new tools. You stare at these projects. They are different than your own. You stare at these tools. They are new to you. Maybe you love this new wing! You find its projects fascinating! You’re excited about having new tools! Great! Or, maybe, you hate everything about it. You cover it up and refuse to set foot inside. This is fine too.
Because love or hate, you have a new wing at your disposal, to visit or ignore at will.
Reading widely adds more wings.
It never hurts to have more wings.
Let me finish by stressing this: You can be a good writer without reading widely. Reading widely is by no means a prerequisite for writing. If anything, it’s icing on top. It’s the optional reading you get at the end of each class for enrichment’s sake. This is simply to encourage you to explore. To give it a try, whatever it may be. To test new waters, and seek new tools. To try novel things. To stretch and bend and break some boundaries. To have some fun.
So read widely, write without fear.
You never know what you will find.
Like more authors, Jennifer Chen is a humanoid organism. She is usually found in front of an unfinished Word document, ingesting caffeinated drinks, and daydreaming. She enjoys writing so much she went ahead and got herself an MFA in creative writing from University of British Columbia for it.
Jennifer will read anything at least once, and then talk about it over the course of several social dinners. Of all the genres available, she most enjoys speculative fiction and magic realism.
An important step in my editing routine is this: rooting out repeated instances of characters' sighs, frowns, smiles, head nods, head shaking, and (yes!) long, steadying breaths before acting or speaking. Repetition is often a sign of flabby writing, and this particular kind has cropped up often enough in my own work to earn itself a nickname: the bobblehead syndrome.
Characters who are limited to just a handful of generic responses become less real and less relatable for the reader. In effect, the flabbier the writing, the flatter the characters are. Therefore, I've trained myself to think of vague emotional indicators as placeholders in a manuscript. They're acceptable in early drafts, but only until I can substitute a more detailed, more telling, and more authentic description of what the character is feeling inside, or how it appears to a point-of-view observer. Here are some examples from recent stories:
First draft: “I can see where this is going,” she said, frowning. “But I'm not going to break the law."
Edited: “I see.” Her lips and brows contracted as though pulled tight by the same string as her old-timey purse. “But don't think for one moment that I'll break the law to protect you."
(Frowns are so generic. This is a much more vivid and revealing description of her expression.)
First draft: He drew and expelled a long breath before speaking. “Well! It appears we are about to have a first contact situation.”
Edited: “Well!” he declared after a beat. “It appears we are about to have a first contact situation.”
(This character is simply buying time to process an unexpected development. Save the long breath for a high-stakes pivotal moment, such as when a character is about to commit perjury on the stand.)
First draft: She shook her head. “Absolutely not!”
Edited: "What? No! Absolutely not!"
(Unnecessary repetition here, a silent response followed by an identical verbal one. Check to see which one is more effective in the given situation, then go with it.)
Sometimes a simple frown or nod is a character's most authentic reaction. When it's not, I've found it helpful to have an "emotional thesaurus" on hand. Here's the recipe:
Collect any apt or well-worded character responses that you come across in your reading. Classify them according to the emotion being felt. Add your own original phrases to the list as well. (I've mined drafts of earlier stories for spot-on descriptions that came to me in moments of inspiration.) Then, while editing, dip into it for interesting emotional reactions that will strengthen your writing as they reveal the various dimensions of your characters. Your readers will appreciate it.
Arlene F. Marks
Arlene F. Marks took up writing at the age of 6 and is now helplessly addicted to it. Since retiring from the classroom, she has completely surrendered to her muse, authoring two multi-volume literacy programs and a writing manual, along with a great deal of imaginative fiction. Her current project is Sic Transit Terra, a series of space opera novels set at the turn of the 25th century that she describes as "Dynasty meets Star Trek with a side order of 24". Book 5, The Cockroach Crusade, will be coming out later this year from EDGE Publishing. Arlene lives and writes in the beautiful Georgian Bay area of Ontario.
Arlene's website: www.thewritersnest.ca
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I love losing myself in a good story.
Whether I’m sitting on the couch with a fantastic show or film, whether I’m reading a phenomenal book, or whether I’m booting up my computer to reign supreme in Tamriel, a good plot with great characters can keep me occupied for hours.
Sometimes it’s because I need to shut down my brain, sure, but a lot of the time, these are not passive activities for me. They’re a work of study.
Seriously. You should listen to me, and my husband watch some of the new Netflix shows. We basically have notebooks out, noting each beat and marking the quality with which they hit it. It leaves us a bit more critical of what we’re watching than if we just sat back and enjoyed, but I have learned so much about great storytelling from the likes of the first season of Stranger Things or The Punisher*.
My particular favourite is watching relationships. Unique twists on romances or friendships, dynamics I’ve wanted to play with but haven’t quite figured out how. Stories are all about people, so if watching something triggers conflict between two characters in your head, you’re already off to a great start.
And have you ever read a book where the prose is so sharp and beautiful, the character so richly developed, that within five minutes of picking it up, you want to put it back down so you can make some words of your own? In my opinion, those are the best books. The ones that inspire, that spark ideas over the smallest details, and make you believe you’re capable of doing the same for someone else.
I’m also a big fan of video games. Not that I would call myself a gamer, per se. I don’t have the passion for them that, say, my husband does, or even all that many games in my history. The type of games I love take a lot of time, and I tend to get a little…consumed when I start a new one, so I have a habit of sticking with my tried-and-trues. But that’s okay! Each time I play I still get a lot out of them, which is the point of this post.
Video games, even more than watching or reading something, give that real sense of immersion. You’re not just watching someone else wield a dagger or some fancy magics, you’re the one defeating the big bads and having the wild romances, and saving the world from whatever evil is threatening it. You’re the one playing sneaky-sneaky thief, prowling in the shadows to pick locks and steal the sacred objects that, really, didn’t belong to the person laying claim to it either.
You can choose to be the villain, you can choose to be the hero, and all of your options are valid.
It’s pretty intoxicating.
And with a well-written game, it can set off a whirlwind of ideas.
At the moment, I’m replaying Skyrim for the umpteenth time**. This is not a perfect game, by far. The story is pretty shoddy, and beyond a few NPCs (non-playable characters), the character development is non-existent. But the Thieves’ Guild questline is always a joy to tackle (the first half anyway), and the characters involved never fail to spark an idea or five for some sneaky-stabby-rogue stories of my own. In a way, the lack of definitive story or development makes them that much easier to work with as a starting base. I have been known to pause games to write down ideas. My first publication, a serial called Greylands (no longer available to purchase), was based on just this kind of brainstorming session, and I know it won’t be the last time it happens
Stories are everywhere if you’re looking for them, so if you ever feel stuck, just lose yourself in someone else’s world with an eye to forming ideas of your own.
And the next time you’re playing a solid RPG or analyzing a great show, and someone says you should be writing, you can turn to them and tell them you already are.
*There are exceptions to this critical viewing. Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Good Place get a pass. They’re too good for critique.
**I know for a fact I’m not the only author who has enjoyed Bethesda games. Among the many of us out there, here’s a wonderful story about a wonderful writer and a wonderful character and a wonderful mod that shows how meaningful and impactful gaming can be.
Like many authors, Krista Walsh has been writing since she was old enough to hold a pen. At eight years old, she wrote three one-page ghost stories that she still feels are her best work. From plays and short stories through to fanfiction and novels, stories have always buzzed around in her head. After her first publication in April 2012, a short story in a dark fantasy anthology, Krista made her way through various collaborations and anthologies until she founded the self-publishing brand of Raven’s Quill Press.
One of my most favourite things to write is emotionally powerful scenes. They hit the reader square in the heart (or head), shed a tear or share a laugh, and perhaps allow them to make discoveries they hadn’t realized previously. But actually creating those moments is more than just a romantic kiss beneath a full moon or an epic battle between good and evil. It’s the little moments that build up to the climax that the reader will appreciate in the end.
If you are a writer or have ever dabbled in it, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the “show, don’t tell” phrase before. But for penning a scene that is supposed to drive into your reader’s heart, you can only talk about ‘the slow flow of water leaking from his eyes,’ and ‘her heart beating wildly in her chest’ so much. When I am writing out this special moment for the first time, I get everything out - all the character movements, bad jokes, small nuances and subtleties: fingertips touching, a shift in body language, batted eyelashes. When the word well runs empty, that’s when the magic begins.
While reading over the verbal vomit I’ve thrown onto your page, imagine it as a movie scene. We all have ‘that one part in that one movie’ where we were enthralled with everything that was happening: the music, the words, the setting all seemed to flow in perfect harmony. I want to have that same effect on the reader, and so I play it out as such in words. For example, if you have a pair of friends that find out they’re related to one another when they thought they had no family left, tell us about how excited they are, about the small jig they dance around each other. Show us the choked up voices, the small hope growing over the disbelief, the laughter of relief that they aren’t alone anymore. Make them more human in that window of time than they have been in the entire story, and they will breathe life into everything else that happens, regardless if it’s related or not.
On the flip side of this ‘show and tell,’ try not to use words that you’re not familiar with. If a stranger walked up to you and asked you to explain that word to them, and you’re not really sure how it might be best to leave it out or find an alternative. Googling ‘100 of the most beautiful words’ may bring about inspiration, but who would know what moiety meant without looking it up? Being poetic and having creative license as a writer allows us to literally make up things that have their own meaning, one you would presumably remember better than something you pulled off of a website. Take the time to scout inspiration, but don’t forget that this is your story, not the internet’s.
Ashley J. Gallaher-Pollard
When Ashley was in elementary school, she fell heavily in love with reading, mostly mythology and fiction. At eleven, she penned her first story about a fearless princess and a tyrant king. Now, she's writing about gifted women and the power of family. She has written numerous poems, a handful of them published through Young Writers of Canada and the contests they hold, and several flash fictions on personal characters that she has developed over the years. Her favourite things to read and write are fantasy adventure and science fiction, and sometimes she dabbles in romance. Her current project is War Wine (working title), a mature high fantasy novel that covers familial bonds, love of all kinds, and friendship.
Would you read a book where the heroine had nothing to do all day, but get along with all of her friends, have a civil conversation with the antagonist and snap her fingers to turn the world into a utopia? Neither would I. It’s boring and flat has little potential for character development.
Conflict is what makes a story interesting. It’s what causes (and forces) a character to grow, regress, or in some cases stay the same but watch those around them change in profound ways.
These are psychological and emotional struggles that the heroine faces, internal obstacles that prevent her from reaching her external goals. Let’s say the heroine has to confront a bully boss to get the recommendation needed for a promotion. She’s endured years of his verbal abuse and as a result, now has low self-esteem. But she also wants the promotion (external goal).
To regain her self-esteem, the heroine works through the verbal abuse of her boss. In one chapter she rallies her courage to enter into the boss’ office and then fails to ask for the recommendation. The next section, she confides in her friend that he didn’t succeed, and the friend gives her a morale boost. Throughout the book, the heroine is exposed to all sorts of people/situations that she internalises. Some of these events provide insight that change and alter the heroine until the moment of truth at the end where she asks for the recommendation (a happy ending), or she doesn’t and returns to her work station (a tragedy).
The heroine receives advice from her best friend, her mother, and a professional career coach. All three offer different strategies for dealing with the bully boss and the heroine can’t implement all three strategies at once. Her decision is also an internal conflict because if she doesn’t select her best friend’s or mother’s advice, she’ll hurt them and if she doesn’t take the career coach’s help, she’ll lose credibility in the eyes of the coach.
External conflicts are obstacles outside of the heroine that prevent her from reaching her goal. The bully boss (antagonist) is an external obstacle to her promotion. The three colleagues (supporters of the antagonist) that suck up to the bully boss and turn on the heroine are also obstacles. These characters actively work to suppress and deny the heroine in her mission.
Other external conflicts aren’t necessarily related to the antagonist. Suppose a new job position has opened up and three other colleagues have applied for it. They are in conflict with one another because they all want the same thing and not everyone can get it. There’s only one job opening.
Then there is the cast of characters that the heroine interacts with outside of work. She speaks with her mother about the situation at work, and her mother offers her a different approach/strategy to resolve the matter. The heroine doesn’t like the idea her mother proposes and is in conflict with the mother. The mother wants the heroine to take on the bully head-on, march down to human resources and report the boss. The heroine knows that the human resources manager is the husband of the boss and reporting on the boss will bring on a world of trouble. The mother says she should still report the bully boss.
Strong characters have layers of internal and external conflicts. If you feel that you’re stuck in your story, add two internal conflicts and two external conflicts. Play around with the conflicts and see how they internal conflicts influence the external ones. You’ll have more complex and interesting characters as a result.
Understanding How Amazon Links to Markets
Understanding How Amazon Links to Markets
The most important step in getting your books into the reader’s hands is directing them to a storefront. Since Amazon has the largest market share globally, many opt to target them exclusively and gain access to features such as Kindle Unlimited.
Authors will typically provide a link to their book from Amazon.com or their regional counterparts. These links can be used on Twitter, Facebook, other social media, and the author’s blog. For example:
Does that link work for everyone? How about those that shop in a different market? Good question, but first we need to explain what an Amazon market is.
Amazon is separated into regional marketplaces usually but country. This is why you will find sites like Amazon.com (United States), Amazon.ca (Canada), Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom) and so forth. For various reasons, not all goods can be purchased in a market that is not your own, and this extends to Kindle Books. So how does this apply when people are sent to the wrong market? The answer is nuanced.
On a computer, Amazon will inform users that they are not in their market and will redirect them. That is not the case for mobile users, the example below shows a case where the user is not in their default market (Amazon.com).
Page viewed on Amazon.com, not the user’s default market
Since the user is in the wrong market, they are told that This title is not currently available for purchase. Some potential readers will know what is going on and change the link. Then they would then see the following page:
Page viewed on Amazon.ca, the user’s default market
What if the user is not aware this problem exists and/or how to correct? What happens then? Simple answer, the user moves on or contacts a confused author. Potentially leading to one less sale, and the opportunity to get a positive review or build a fan base.
So how do we fix this? Here are three easy methods.
Authl.it http://authl.it/ is a service that provides a jump page for the user. When someone clicks on the generated link, they will see the novel, synopsis and shows users various markets. This service requires no account and comes with a concise link mimicking services like Bit.ly http://bitly.com/.
Note that the page shows which market is most likely correct, reducing the chances for someone choosing the wrong market. Also, note that not all markets are available through this service.
BookLinker http://www.booklinker.net/ is a site that offers the ability to create market agnostic links. The links are free for the basic service, easy to create, and provides a simple link that you can pass on. These links can also be customized, so they are easier to remember. When users click on the link, they are redirected to their market, a process that is invisible to the user.
Universal Books Links
Universal Books Links http://www.books2read.com/links/ubl/create/ is a service offered by Draft2Digital http://www.draft2digital.com/ and provides a similar function to BookLinker. The difference is how this service also links marketplaces other than Amazon, such as Apple, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble. The service is free, and Universal Book Links are created automatically when you push books through Draft2Digital.
You can also add links that Draft2Digital will not target, such as Smashwords. Overall this is an excellent solution for those who go wide. Users who click on the links will get the option of choosing their market and going straight to the book. Links on this service can also be customized, just like BookLinker.
Launch page created by Universal Book Links
Note: All of these services can be paired with a web link shortening service such as Bit.ly http://bitly.com/. This can be invaluable on sites like Twitter with a limited character count and provides the ability to track links for statistical analysis.
In short, Amazon has multiple markets to sell Kindle books. A link for one country may not redirect users and result in a lost sale.
Using services like Authl.it, BookLinker, and Universal Book Links helps you provide one link which negates this problem. Users end up where they need to be, and you can grow your fanbase from there!
Evelyn Chartres is the nom de plume for a self-published Canadian author. The writer of three Gothic fantasy novels, Evelyn introduced the Portrait in 2016, the Grand in 2017 and the Van Helsing Paradox in 2018.
A fan of the phrase live to eat, Evelyn shares her recipes on evelynchartres.com. Her recipes have a loose focus on French-Canadian cuisine, featuring deep-dish meat pies, seafood, and desserts rarely seen outside of La Belle Province.
Evelyn is currently living in Ottawa, Ontario and is busy laying the foundations for her next project.
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Your story begins with beautiful, lyrical prose. You engage the reader's interest with your scenic descriptions, the protagonist's wounded backstory, and a hook that makes the reader hungry for more. Then it's time for someone to speak, and you feel like your characters can't string two words together.
Some authors struggle with dialogue, and if that's something you can relate to, I'll be offering a few tips to help you put just the right words in your character's mouths.
First, consider your genre, decade and setting. If your novel is set in a Dystopian future on an imaginary planet, make sure your characters' vernacular reflects that. I am also not a fan of filtering words or censoring my characters. Readers want to relate to the heroes in the story, and if someone stubs their toe on a coffee table really hard, you bet they are going to share an expletive or two.
You also have to remember to add the bits and pieces of real life that would naturally interrupt a conversation. No one speaks in full paragraphs without interruption. The phone will ring, thunder might boom, or that pot of boiling water on the stove will need tending.
Give your characters a voice that will be hard for the reader to forget. Make them as real as possible. Admissions of love, for example, should sound realistic and not contrived or forced, or worse, cliched.
I like to write my characters as if I were directing them in a movie. Remember to add expressions, hand movements, or even music. During a heated argument, a person doesn't stand stoically. They pace, they stuff their hands in their pockets and do everything human. Add emotion to your dialogue accordingly. A death-bed scene will include crying. A celebration will consist of shouts of joy or contagious laughter.
Dialogue is every bit important as the rest of the book. Passion is key; realism too. Your readers will want to relate to your characters (or wish that sexy protagonist was speaking directly to them.) As the reader, if you feel like you're eavesdropping on something juicy and wonderful, then the author did a great job.
When all is said and done, read it out loud to yourself to hear the conversation just how the reader might interpret it in their mind.
Last, but never least, be bold. If you're unafraid of what your characters will say next, your readers will no longer think of them as imaginary people, but simply someone they would love to befriend. That's a great compliment to any writer.
Barbara Avon is a multi-genre author. She is also the author of three children’s books. Her books have been received favourably across the board, entertaining readers with an almost “movie-like” quality. Barbara has written since she was young, pursuing her dreams and vowing to write for as long as she can. She has worked at several different media publications and will continue to publish novels until “her pen runs dry.” She believes in paying it forward, and you can read about this belief as the theme is given voice in most of her books. Avon lives in Ontario, Canada with her husband, Danny, their tarantula, Betsy, and their houseplant, “Romeo.”
You can find her engaging in the Writing Community conversation on Twitter: @barb_avon
Why do people clink their glasses when they raise a toast? Historically it was to ensure a drop from your mug of ale or wine landed in mine and vice versa, and if you poisoned my cup, then your cup would also be tainted. Says a lot about how people took breaches of trust seriously.
You’re walking down the street in medieval England, and you notice men missing their index and middle fingers. What does that tell you? Have they been caught pick-pocketing? Some sort of accident at the smiths? At the time, it meant they were archers, and they were captured by an enemy who cut off those fingers so they couldn’t draw a bow.
Now, take those two missing fingers and place them in another society and the meaning changes completely. In another culture, say one where healers use their index and middle fingers to check the energy or meridians of a patient, having their fingers cut off might mean they were banned from practicing because they angered the queen or that an occupying force is stamping out the knowledge of the practice by targeting the healers.
Context. Everything your characters do happens in a context. Your book might be contemporary, an alternate history, or occur in a second-world. Wherever they are, they have rules and norms that are known to the character. Sometimes, they follow the norms, sometimes they break them. But the norms exist and define what is acceptable and not acceptable in the world. And how your character interacts with them shapes the problems they face, their internal conflicts, and how they interact with others.
Take for example a man in medieval Britain with his fingers cut off. Members of his community might view him as brave and worthy of help getting back on his feet. But, in the context of a second-world, where pick-pockets have their fingers cut off, another community will not be as inclined to welcome and support the person because of the connotation of the missing digits.
Having a ritual or a behaviour without attaching meaning to it drags on the story. Why did that character go to that shrine and pray and not another shrine? Why do those characters clasp at the elbows in greeting? What’s the seating arrangement at the dinner table and what does it suggest that mother sits at the head and father sits to her left?
To bring out the world you’re shaping, pick 2-3 norms that your character bumps up against. Maybe one cultural expectation works in their favour and empowers them, and the other two disadvantages them or causes problems for them in one way or another that they have to overcome.
Building meaning into your norms enriches the world, characterisation, and adds layers to the conflicts your characters face.
For me, the process of writing a story is an adventure. As a writer of epic fantasy, people often ask, “How do you world build? How do you establish plot lines? How do you create characters? How do you build magic systems?” To each and every one of those questions, the answer is simple. I don't.
So many people devote countless hours (some take years!) building a fantastical world. They spend days and weeks fretting over magic systems. They agonize until the sun comes up about the plot. I get it. There are a lot of people who require structure. Hey, if that works for them, great, but I don't have the patience, nor the time to devote to these things when I could be writing instead. I don’t need to stress over things my characters are going to sort out for themselves anyway.
What do I mean by that? Well, in some circles, I am called a ‘pantser.’ I had never heard of this term until a few months ago. It means I fly by the seat of my pants. Truth be told, I like to think I fly by the seat of my character's pants. When I sit down to write, I haven't spent weeks agonizing over scene development or crisis management. Heck, I don't even know what the land looks like around the next bend in the trail. The beauty is, I don't have to. My characters tell me everything I need to know as they experience it.
My worldbuilding consists of maintaining two detailed excel spreadsheets, which, by the way, are made and added to as the story progresses. Nothing is done beforehand. One spreadsheet, the places spreadsheet, has a tab for everyplace, road, river, etc. I put in the story—each with their own description. The other spreadsheet, the people spreadsheet, lists almost every character mentioned, with 3 subcategories: Physical Description, Clothing, and Other. (The obligatory guy that shows up and becomes collateral damage, doesn’t count.)
At some point, I generate a map, but not before the story is well underway. Why, because the characters haven’t told me what’s on the map yet. And magic systems? Huh? I write fantasy. Magic is an inherent part of the story. I don’t explain how people stay alive by describing the intricacies of breathing: oxygen enters one’s lungs via a tube called an esophagus and then passes through…you get what I’m saying? You just accept the fact that the character’s body is capable of breathing. That being said, I don’t need to explain how magic works—by definition, it’s magic!
There are days when the writing process doesn’t flow. Those days are tough. Some people like to hide behind the security curtain many refer to as writer’s block. I refuse to let myself do this. On the days writing doesn’t come naturally, my word count suffers for sure, but I still get a count. I force myself to write the word, ‘The,’ and then the next word, and then the one after that. You might surprise yourself. Once you change your mindset from “I can’t do it” to “I am doing it,” more often than not, the so-called ‘writer’s block’ disappears. Don’t worry if it’s not Pulitzer prize winning material—that’s what editing is for!
For me, writing a story is simple. I put a character in a room, or on a trail, or in a boat, and all I need to do is have them place that first foot in front of the other and give them a shove. The rest is easy. The land and their story will evolve before their eyes. My job as a writer is to keep up and tell the reader what my characters are experiencing.
Life is short. Don’t let it pass you by with your characters locked inside your head. If you don’t write it, no one can read it. Sit in front of your keyboard, look through your character’s eyes, and take part in the wondrous adventure awaiting them.
Richard H. Stephens
Born in Simcoe, Ontario, in 1965, Richard began writing circa 1974, a bored child looking for something to while away the long, summertime days. His penchant for reading The Hardy Boys led to an inspiration one sweltering summer afternoon when he and his best friend realized, "Hey, we could write one of those." And so, Richard did.
As his reading horizons broadened, so did his writing. Star Wars inspired Richard to write a 600-page novel about outer space that caught the attention of a special teacher, Mr. Woodley, who saw his talent and encouraged him to keep writing.
A few years later, Richard visited a local bookstore. The proprietor introduced him to Stephen R. Donaldson and Terry Brooks. Richard's writing life was forever changed.
Amazon Author Page: www.amazon.com/author/richardhstephens
YouTube Channel: https://bit.ly/2NKpOhn
Three weeks into National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and I’m seeing a lot of people on social media say they’ve hit a wall when it comes to their work in progress (WIP). Let’s face it, churning out 2,000 or more words a day every day for weeks on end is a challenging pace.
When I’m stuck with a WIP, I ask myself what kind of inspiration I need. Sometimes, I do not understand a character. The way that I’m describing them is flat, they have poor dialogue, and they’re doing things mechanically and clinically. To get inspired, I watch a movie or two or three on a related theme that I’m writing on. Sometimes I’m trying to write something funny, so I watch a comedy in a setting that’s related to my books. If I’m stuck on a military character, then I pick a movie appropriate to the period of time I’m writing and focused on the rank that I’m writing (foot soldiers versus from Caesar’s perspective). I watch their body language and jot down notes to see how I can incorporate some of that into my characterisations.
If I need to brainstorm more realistic interactions, then I pick an appropriate public spot, and people watch for a while. I’ll sit in a café and watch two friends interact, or go to a restaurant that is family friendly to see how families with younger children communicate differently than those with older children.
Even though I use an outline for the main plot points and a few character moments, I do sometimes write myself into a corner or get stuck on the next logical step to get my character from A to B. One thing that really helps me is to jot thoughts down. (I have so many notebooks I had to get new shelves installed). I brainstorm a few words or plot points, I draw a relationship map between the characters, I write down a few motivations and goals for the characters involved in the scene, and I’ll even sketch the movement in a battle. I find that writing pen to paper uses a different brain mechanism than typing. Things pry loose from the corners of my mind, and I can continue with my scene.
If the words aren’t coming to me, I write an outline for another short story or book. I’m still working on my craft and moving my projects forward, without working on my word count. I feel productive and satisfied at the end of the day.
One of the most underrated things to do when you’re stuck is to do something else. Go for a walk. Exercise. Read a book. Take a course to improve your writing skills. Play a computer game. Visit a friend. Do anything else except writing, and it will give your brain a break.
When we read how well others are writing, their astronomical word counts, and the staggering pace at which they release books, remind yourself that they too get stuck. All writers face similar structural and characterisation issues, all writers have written themselves into corners and have had to find ways out. Getting stuck is part of the craft, and with persistence, everyone can get unstuck.
Word Crafting is a blog to help writers strive for excellence. If you would like to be a guest blogger, pitch me an idea.