Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Utilizing Setting

Here's another writing skill I've learned as I go: using your setting well, especially when a setting is visited more than once.

Have you ever made up a list of your settings and taken note of how many times you use them? No? I don't normally either, but I did this time and the data revealed a wealth of information. It made me think about how I distributed details describing that setting and how I was using my setting to set the tone or as an active story element. I understood the initial theory of the latter already. It was time to try it out.

So I combed through my scene profiles and made up a list of settings, noted when they were used, and what details were used. As I came to settings used more than once, I especially wanted to know what details would be different each time the setting was visited. That lead me to consider what the atmosphere or mood of the scene was.

For instance, the first time a character visited a dining room, it could be full of people, lively chatter, the clank and clatter of dishes, the smells of freshly made food. Those kinds of details the character would notice right off. If the character was looking for someone in the scene, they would focus on people more than anything else, and if their mood was hopeful or happy, they might find the sunshine coming through the windows adds to their mood. But say the same character visits the same setting later on and the mood and setting has altered. The character is sad and the room is empty. There are no people, the smells are old and stale, it's quiet. The sun may still be shining outside, but it feels hot and stuffy and oppressive to the character. Or perhaps it's now raining and the wind can be heard whipping around the corners of the building. Maybe the circumstances are familiar to before with lots of people and action going on, but this time the character doesn't look at anyone. They scurry to a corner table or seat and play with their food. The food served this time they hate, and the time seems to tick by slowly - illustrated by the grandfather clock in the corner. So many options!

Differentiating details help set the tone of a scene. And no one notices everything about a setting when they go into it - unless they're a detective looking for clues. Think about when you walk into a room or a park even. What details do you notice, depending on your mood and the circumstances that brought you to that place? The next time you go to the same place, I'll bet you, like me, notice different things, or changes in the same things you noticed before.

A setting can act as an antagonist. It doesn't necessarily have to be a haunted house or the lair of a killer with obvious danger signs. The setting might have been once a favorite place, now tainted by plot elements that has soured the memories. Or there may be a hidden danger or trigger in the setting. A fire breaking out would make a setting a definite threat. A setting can also be a refuge or sanctuary, a resting place where a character can strengthen themselves for the battles to come.

I've learned to consider these things, in conjunction with utilizing the five senses (sight, smell, sound, taste, touch) to describe settings, filtering the description through the narrative, not lumping it all together. I feel it's made me a better writer and I notice even more depth and subtlety to my story because of it. Showing these kinds of details at the right time, in the right place, in the right way makes a lot of difference.

My challenge for you is to try analyzing your scenes and checking to make sure you are using them to the best of your ability. If you do, tell me about what you discovered. If you're an old hand at this sort of thing, do you have any further advice for me and my readers on utilizing and differentiating setting visits?

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Writing Update for February

Hi everyone, I'm back!

The downside to having surgery is pain and having to spend weeks in bed. The upside is that you get a lot of writing done. In fact, I'm happy to announce that Trefury: The Secrets of Callorin is written! At least the next draft of it. I've already plunged into my polishing draft, which means beta readers should get it in their hands in a few months and then the final leg of another book begins. It's exciting.

You think that writing that first book is quite the accomplishment, but to get up and write/finish a second one takes just as much effort. The big difference is the newness of the process is no longer a novelty. I expect it's the same with every subsequent book that you get done.

So I have a nice fat 3-ring binder and a nice fat notebook containing all the inside interviews with characters, the brainstorming sessions, the detailed descriptions, and the story itself. It's not in chapters yet, but separated by scenes thanks to my scene profiles. Remember me talking about those? Can I just say that I wish I'd known about making scene profiles years ago? They were a lot of time and effort, but they really helped me streamline the story and get it down on paper. It was super easy to follow through on object/character/plot threads, to take notes, to make sure I didn't have any gaping plot holes to fill. And the best part is that I can organize my information and notes easily for this next draft.

So what does the polishing draft do? Well, this is where the details come out, dialogue is refined, the plot is trimmed even more, and I make sure I don't have redundancies, tangents, or other no-no's. Basically, at this stage, you want to make the novel your best current effort. And then you give it to other writers to read ... I've blogged several times about that stage.

If you've got a moment, tell me how you are doing. How goes your writing journey? What stage are you at?

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Writing Update for December

One of the tools I like to use is a chronological chart of happenings, paralleling each character's thread. I'm looking at the chart for Trefury: The Secrets of Callorin and I'm near the end. It's a good feeling. Five months ago I felt I'd never get to this point. I've faithfully kept a writing journal as I've plodded through my current rewrite and the dismay of an empty 3-ring binder and a brand new notebook has given way to a sense of satisfaction as they both have filled up. In fact, I may need a second notebook before I'm through. My scene profile files on my computer are grouped based on plot threads and it's handy to be able to read through them and make sure that information and action are where they need to be.

Basically, a daunting, humongous task has become less Herculean due to persistence and hard work. I don't have the luxury of having several hours a day to devote to writing. I snatch an hour or two where I can, sometimes only half an hour. The little bits add up and I'm glad that I documented them as they compiled.

Writing is so solitary an endeavor and I often find myself tucked away from the rest of the writing world as I'm in the middle of creation or revision. I poke my head out once in awhile and make sure I keep active on my writing forum because writing contacts and friends are important too. What I think I enjoy most is the self-discovery part of writing, the omniscient feeling. And the realization that how I picture my worlds and characters will never translate perfectly through words doesn't disturb me as much any more. As writers, we create alone, then give away what we write to the imaginations of those who read. Wouldn't it be scary and cool if there was a way to perfectly translate the story we see in our heads? Kind of like plugging up everyone else to the movie in our heads, including the strength of our emotions and how we feel about what is going on. I'm sure someone will create a movie about that concept someday.

It's interesting to reflect and chart your own growth as a writer, too. The absorption of technique, critiques, brainstorming, and improved skills is exciting to see. I don't think that makes each story we write any easier, unless we are following a set formula, but we're not the clumsy beginning artists we once were. There's a little more confidence, fewer paths down tangent roads that eat up time and make us feel like novice idiots. We've learned rules and when to break them. We've learned that there are very few hard rules in fact and that we can move creatively forward without incurring the wrath of people we once thought of as experts on pedestals. We've learned the difference between indulgent writing for ourselves and the slavery of writing to everyone else's expectations, and hopefully chosen a place in between.

We present our work to the world, have our PR time, then go back into the cave of solitude to create another story. And that's where I am. I've had my break from writing, gagged the internal editor, and am blissfully reworking a story I feel passionate about.

I'm having surgery today and I'm excited about it. I look forward to finishing this year and starting the next spending my recuperation time finishing up this draft before doing my final rewrite (the one before I solicit beta readers to help me iron out the bugs). I hope those of you who write or work in other creative endeavors have a great New Year and if you take anything from this obscure blogpost from this obscure writer, I want it to be hope that even if your circumstances are not ideal as to time and means to pursue your creativity, that you know even the small moments add up. Don't give up or give in to frustration because it isn't happening the way you want or in the time you want it to. Do give your best and work hard. Push yourself; it's so worth it.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Writing Update for November

Did any of you try out scene profiles after reading my last post? I'd love to hear about it.

I'm pleased to say that I've completed a lot on Trefury: The Secrets of Callorin in the past couple of months. There has been chopping out, and adding in, exploration into side stories in order to make scenes richer, and character twists and quirks which have surprised me as they've come to light. Writing a sequel is challenging at the best of times, only in this case, I'm writing a continuation of Trefury: Mendi's Curse. The original book was cut in two. So this half will be high-powered and darker than the first, in preparation for the big revelations that come with book three.

There are moments when I'd love to put this story aside and work on something else entirely. For a long time I was blocked, not for lack of plot or character development, but in trying to figure out what should be shown and how to show it. I broke that block last week thanks to scene profiles. You can imagine my happy dance when that happened. That block had prevented me from being on deadline by several months. Now I'm bursting ahead to catch up.

Have you ever had a bad block before? How did you get past it? How did you feel afterwards?

I'm grateful I got past mine. I'm grateful for the support of family and friends with my writing endeavors. I'm grateful to be able to develop my writing skills further. And I'm grateful for those who have read Trefury: Mendi's Curse and have shared their reactions with me.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Cut-to's and Scene Profiles: A Second Draft Life Saver

You've written your novel. The creative juices were flowing, you hit a few blocks and snags, but you got past them, and it feels so great to have reached the end.

And now you have the second draft to deal with.

The drafts that follow that magical first one can be magical too, except this kind of magic comes with a price, that of lots of toil, pressure, overcoming self-doubt or self-delusion, sweat, and more dark valleys than bright mountain peaks. It's worth it; trust me; you don't want to put that first draft in a safe and leave it as is. Your baby has to grow up.

There are lots of ways to tackle subsequent drafts. I've tried many of them. I still use many of them. My favorite is quickly becoming the art of the scene profile and cut-to. Screenwriters use this technique and so can you. It's like rewriting your novel before you actually rewrite it and it'll save you having to do lots of other rewrites.

For example, have you ever started a rewrite - even with an outline - and at a certain point you realize that the whole things isn't going to work? Or maybe the story's been derailed or sidelined. Outlines are great to help prevent this, but outlines aren't written in stone and can easily be overturned or go astray. Outlines are pretty distant too, even the in-depth ones, giving you a panoramic big picture view of your story and where you expect it to go. The problem is when you settle in to write and all the little things start accumulating, you find that that big picture wasn't so accurate or that you're in a tussle to try to make the little things tow the line and keep to the outline.

By all means, use outlines as tools. I do. But after you've had your panoramic glimpse of the big picture, may I suggest using scene profiles and cut-to's before you start rewriting in order to keep the big and little things from creating an epic battle that will threaten your sanity and eat up extra time as you try over and over again to make them agree with each other.

What are scene profiles and cut-to's? How do you use them?
A cut-to is an overview of a scene, like a close-up glance, or play by play of the action.
A scene profile is where you've gathered your pertinent information on the scene and the characters in it.

Together the scene profile and the cut-to list makes rewriting your scenes easy and efficient. They'll help you spot inconsistencies, plot-holes, will help you decide if you need minor tweaks or an overhaul, or let you know if a scene needs to be dropped because it has no purpose. While these sound like extra effort and work, they actually save you a lot of time and effort in the long run.

Here's an example of what I do:
1. Create a list of scenes that are in the novel or that I know need to be in the novel.
2. Working one scene at a time, plug in the information about the scene (whether directly from my first draft or the outline or both) into the scene profile.
3. Create the cut-to list for each scene.

I have a template I build off of for each scene:
Scene name or number: I'm a big proponent of naming scenes because it encapsulates the purpose of the scene and makes it easier to keep them straight rather than using numbers.
1. Date: This refers to the date in your story. Is this scene during Day 45 or on the 27th of March. It seems like a little, unimportant thing, but it's not. Knowing the date helps set your chronology and makes you step back and think about how realistic your time frames are in the narrative.
2. Time of Day: This affects your characters and your setting. What if your main character is a morning person and this scene takes place in the evening? They are more apt to be tired and cranky. Didn't think of that the first time you wrote this scene did you? Or what if it's night time and your characters are at a university? What are they doing there at night? Little details like this enhance your narrative and pique reader curiosity.
3. Weather: Yes, what is the weather like during this scene? Did your first draft read like a perpetual summer's day? How might knowing the weather affect your characters, the setting, or the plot?
4. Setting: This is where you plug in the details of your setting. And I do stress details. You should write it all down in a separate file, envision it. And then be prepared to pull what you need from it and let the rest go, or bring out some details in this scene and other details later on when revisiting this same place. Make a note here of the details you've chosen to reveal.
5. Objects: Good novels have objects. Memorable characters are associated with objects, like Snow White and the apple or the Beast and his enchanted castle. Objects are symbolic of what is happening in the plot or to the characters. What objects are noticed, sought after, obtained, or lost in this scene?
6. Characters: Write down which characters are actively in this scene. This is also the place to mention if there is something new, off, or otherwise different about any of the characters. If you're introducing or exiting a character, you can make a note of that as well.
7. Scene cut-to's: A list of play-by-play action that goes on in the scene. This is where you very briefly and succinctly write the scene before actually writing it with fleshed out details. For example: 
     i. Main character walks into the room with a book.
     ii. Side characters B & C stop talking about Main character and look guilty.
     iii. Main character asks them what is going on.
     iv. Character C pulls out a letter from their coat pocket and hands it to MC
     v. MC opens the letter and starts to read.
     vi. Character B makes an excuse to leave the room.
     vii. Character C tells B they can't go yet.
     viii. MC reads that their teenage child has run away from boarding school.
     ix. Character C tells MC that they aren't surprised, launches into a tirade about MC neglecting their child.
     x. MC slams the book down on a table.
     xi. Character B makes a hasty exit through an outside door.
     xii. MC laughs and Character C is shocked.
     xiii. MC tells C that they helped their teenager escape.
     xiv. Character C reaches for their phone.
     xv. MC twists C's arm behind their back.
     xvi. Character C drops the phone in the pool.
    xvii. MC whispers in C's ear that they know C was the reason the teen was sent to the boarding school to begin with.
    xviii. Character C asks what the MC intends to do.
    xix. MC lets C go and walks toward the door.
    xx. C repeats the question with greater agitation.
    xxi. MC tells C that they won't hear from MC or their teen again.
8. Flashbacks or backstory reveals: Here's where you plug in your backstory material that has any relevancy to what is happening in this scene. It can be pages long or a quick sentence. Not all scenes should have flashbacks or backstory reveals, but you as a writer need to know where these things are simmering in the subtext.
9. Foreshadowing: This is the place where you have your big picture outlook come down to manageable size. Not all scenes have foreshadowing, but good ones do. It may be a simple remark a character makes, an event, an object, or a decision that will have big consequences later. Stop and think about this scene and your book at large and make this scene stronger by adding an element of foreshadowing.
10. Notes: Here is where you jot down any additional notes you have, like psychological development of the characters, things to watch out for, research data that you've collected that will have a bearing on this particular scene, etc.

See what I mean about writing the rewrite before actually writing it? By putting together this information you get to know your scene, its purpose and place in the novel without expending the time and sweat writing it. And it's much easier to tweak, change, or discard as you build your other scene profiles than going back and rewriting pages of prose.

Once you've made up all of your scene profiles and cut-to's and everything is fitting into place and all your insights, twists, and details match up as they should, then comes the fun part - rewriting your novel. And the best part is that it will be quick because you have everything thought out and jotted down, everything.

Give it a try and tell me what you think. I know I've avoided repeating details too much, found plot-holes, and developed stronger subtext by employing this method. I've also been able to chuck scenes that don't really do anything for the story. Sentimentality is avoided when working in a scene profile and with cut-to's. And usually, a writer's sentimentality is the biggest stumbling block of all to overcome.