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Writing Your First Novel

One of the common questions asked by novice writers on our sister Facebook site Writers Unite! is “How do I start?” To help new writers with the daunting but fun task of writing, I have begun a series of articles on how to prepare writing your first novel.

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Writing Your First Novel

Part One

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 “Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world, I mean everybody — no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds… Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.”
― Neil GaimanThe Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You

All those words Gaiman speaks of rattle around inside of us. Eventually, the urge to allow them to escape becomes overwhelming. Time to write a story.

Fledgling writers come from all walks of life with a wide-ranging knowledge of the writing process. I remember my own experience when I decided to begin writing. Writing was not new to me, throughout my career I had written research papers, manuals, newsletters, speeches, and advertising copy.  However, crafting a fiction story was something I had not done since college. I recognized there was a lot to learn.

The question is where to start?  We can jump right in and begin to put words to paper or screen but are we providing ourselves and our future readers with the best effort we can make? Before we write, let’s explore the steps we should do to prepare ourselves to be good writers. Let’s begin with reading.

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What better than a book to fuel the imagination. One of my favorite quotes is from George R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons:

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”

Reading the works of others is fundamental to the writing process. Any genre and any author (even a not so skilled author) can provide you with useful information. I do recommend selecting best-selling books in the genre/genres that you wish to write in, as well. Successful works related to the story you want to write can provide you with trends and what the readers of the genre prefer.

What you do you as a new author gain by reading? There are several reasons:

Vocabulary:

Reading increases vocabulary by presenting words we may not hear or see on a normal day. A diverse vocabulary is a great asset for any writer by providing an enhanced collection of words that convey the meanings and emotions of your story. A large vocabulary also provides alternate word choices which improve your writing style.

Grammar:

Grammar rules are analogous to rules of the road. Authorities expect us to obey the speed limit, stop at red lights, and follow the other traffic laws. Otherwise, chaos ensues on the roads. The same is true for writing. Grammar rules provide a framework for writing a clear and concise story that a reader expects. When reading, pay attention to sentence structure, verb choice and agreement, how complex or simple the sentence are. You will begin to acquire a feel for the author’s style which can help you find your own.

Plot Structure:

Read to understand how the author constructed their story. How do they open their novel, what hook did they use to draw you into the story? Notice the author introduces their main and secondary characters, build tension toward the climax, or employ foreshadowing, plot twists? Learn what techniques work to provide the reader with an exciting and emotional experience.

Trends:

While you should read all genres for a better overview of style, you should also select numerous books within the genre that you wish to write in. Trends are not only for clothing, but genres are also subject to the latest fad or the focus of a best-selling author. Knowing what your potential reader might prefer when choosing a new novel. A word of caution, trends fade, and by the time your novel is ready for publication, some other trend may have taken your place. Write your story the way you want.

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In subsequent articles, we will look at these topics in more depth as well as other tools for the novice writer.

(Quotes: https://www.brainyquote.com/)

Can Acting Help You Create Memorable Characters

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Whether I’m writing a comic, a blog post or a screenplay, the cornerstone of my writing remains the character.

From the very first moment you welcome your reader, and he reads your first paragraph, you want to make sure he knows:

  1. Whose story is it?
  2. What’s happening around the character?
  3. What’s at stake for the character?

This is because, from Shakespeare to Ibsen, the whole idea of dramatic writing revolves around the character: The one we root for, and the one who moves the story along with its actions.

But building character for fiction requires a deep understanding of human motives. A knowledge I had no access to until I shifted my perspective to a more experiential approach: That of embodying characters myself.

That of Acting.

And it changed me, it made me more aware of human dynamics. From the very first moment I started reading Lee Strasberg, Stanislavski and Grotowski, I noticed the similarities between my career as a psychologist, dramatic writing and those stories I wanted to create. 

But the real question is: Can acting work for you and your fictional characters as it worked for me?

Even without knowing you, and whether you suffer from stage fright or no. I do believe a short acting workshop can help you breathe life into your characters.

Here’s why.

Acting is a space for practice and creativity

Think of acting as a playground for discovery. Your own.

Acting will help you find your voice and it will give you a thorough understanding of your body language. All of this, on a playful and safe environment.

In this controlled space, you’ll have the opportunity to test, propose and create with others. It’s human interaction at its best.  

When you get back to your writing space, you will find how the relationships and interactions between your fictional characters become more natural and innovative.

Acting can teach you how to show, don’t tell

Regular conversations might sound like this:

“I’m sad;” “I don’t want to be here;” “I’m about to cry.”

I know, it sounds dramatic, but it has nothing to with dramatic writing. These are real life examples, yet you’re writing fiction. And since there’s no emotional value behind those phrases, we’re taught as writers to show and never tell.

Acting is no different. That means dialogue remains an extension of action. For example, a good actor on a good play wouldn’t tell the audience he’s about to commit suicide; no, we would see the signs: the gloomy tone of his voice, his gaunt appearance, his vacant stare and saggy posture. The way he thinks of life and the places he visits on a regular basis.

He’s hinting us. He’s suggesting and planting an idea. And we follow him along because we want to know if he’s going to survive or not. He’s in control.

That’s the power of character.

Acting teaches you to put yourself out there

Ok, all of this whole acting thing might sound promising. But what if you have stage fright? Or, you are self-conscious about your body, or your voice, or the way others look at you…

Just… don’t freak out. I feel you.

See, I’m an introvert. I like to read, spend time on my own, and sometimes too much social interaction can leave me heavily drained. Yet I’m so comfortable with myself that I can give a speech, act or sing in front of an audience –without fainting.

I had to learn that from scratch though. And acting helped me a lot.

Before acting I was afraid of looking at people in the eye. I was insecure. I didn’t know what to do with my body, how to move or whether to smile or not. I felt people would just laugh or criticize everything I did. But even when I forgot my lines, or made a mistake, I would just try again.

I didn’t die.

And that’s a huge lesson for us writers and aspiring authors. Acting teaches you to put yourself out there. It will help you with your pitching and that arrogant publisher. You will become more in control of yourself. And that confidence will translate into your writing. You will suddenly become less self-conscious about what you produce and you won’t feel afraid of being vulnerable.

Should you take acting classes?

I don’t think acting is for everyone, and I’m not encouraging you to pursue an acting career. But I do believe that it can critically improve your writing.

It worked for me, and my screenwriting feels more natural ever since.

Even if it doesn’t improve your writing you will have some fun, you will find an alternative way to express yourself creatively, and you will exercise too. Besides you can meet some interesting people in your classes –they could even end up as potential characters for your fiction book.

If you liked the article feel free to share it. Or, if you have any questions about acting and writing you can leave a comment below and I’ll be happy to help.

Happy writing –and acting.

Dan

Find me on my blog Fourth Walled

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Dan de Abreu is dedicated to helping  others aspiring authors while studying the relationship between psychology and writing.
He holds a BA in psychology and  works as a copywriter, screenwriter, and comics writer.
His longtime goal is writing scripts for his own animated short films.

Rylee Black: So, Here I Am, a Writer

 

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So here I am, a writer, and soon (hopefully) to be a published author. The thoughts I want to share with you here are two-fold. But first I’ll share a bit of my journey so far as a writer.

Growing up in a generation before electronics, we spent a lot of time playing outside. I tell you this to give you insight into what led, in part, to my love of writing. (Though I thoroughly believe that I was born a writer – but that’s a post for another day). When we gathered outside to play my friends usually turned to me. Why you might ask? Because it was my job much of the time to come up with what we would do. I took that job joyously and we would plunge into tales of cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, or dragons, knights, and damsels in distress. Our Schwinn bicycles, complete with banana seats and tall sissy bars, became trusty steeds. Sticks morphed into six-shooters, bows-and-arrows, or swords. Thus armed we acted out the stories in my head.

Time passed and playing outside gave way to hours squirreled away in my room (ah the years of teenaged angst). It was during those hours alone (when my nose wasn’t buried in a book) that the stories we’d once acted out made their way to paper. I never shared them, I was much too shy for that, but I lived for the times when I could lose myself in either a world created by my hand or the hand of another author.

Sadly, I let life take me away from writing for years. It took a tragedy I will never recover from to lead me back into my calling. You see, one day in late January/early February 2009, two thing happened. The first was bad, but not terrible – I lost my job of five years. I firmly believe that the universe let that happen so that I would have the time to come to some kind of terms with what happened a little over a week later – my three-year-old grandson Bret died in a tragic automobile accident. That was one of those defining occurrences that give a distinct split to who I was before and who I became after.

It took a couple months to pull myself out of my haze of grief. But then with a job search during one of the worst economic downturns in history yielding no employment, I found myself with too much time on my hands. It was then my old love resurfaced. Within seconds of my idea to take up writing again, my mind was flooded with characters clambering to be included and a little fictitious town laid out before me. So in I plunged. In the almost ten months it took me to find another job, I wrote three novels.

Now I’ll get to what I originally began this post to say.

First point: Writing and the Rules

When I hit the keyboard all those years ago to begin what would become The Candice McGregor Mysteries series, I had a basic (though somewhat well-defined) understanding of the rules of writing based on a good education and hundreds, if not thousands, of books read (another topic for another post). It was only about five years later – after a couple relatives asked to read my books, and after prying the book from my terrified fingers, asked why the heck I wasn’t published – that I joined several writing groups and learned that there are A LOT of rules about writing I was completely oblivious to.

Here you might expect me to get on my soap box and preach the gospel of proper writing. But that is NOT what’s going to happen. You see, I found that the more I learned, the less I loved what I was doing. I spent hours agonizing about whether or not I was showing and not telling. If I should use said or something else in dialogue. If my characters had depth or my story arced in the right place.

I’m not going to say you don’t need to know the rules of writing, because you do, if for no other reason than to understand how you can break them well. But after you learn them, put them away on a shelf in the farthest back alcove of your mind you can, slam the door shut, and put a heavy lock on the door and then write. Let it flow. Love your character, immerse yourself in your settings, and tell your story. Don’t worry if it should be a comma, a semicolon, or a period. Don’t fret about ‘oh my gosh – is that telling or showing???’ – just write. Then when you type those two amazing words – The End (disclaimer >>> Don’t really put them at the end because like, nobody really does that) – THEN you go back to that alcove, take off that darn heavy lock, pull out all those pesky rules, and polish up your amazing story.

All that leads me to my second point.

Do NOT publish your book right away. (I hear your collective gasps and beg you to consider what I say next)

With the advent of self-publishing, you can polish your story (or think you have), create, or have someone else create, a cover that will draw people in – because yes, some people do judge a book by its cover – and press a few buttons, and bless the world with the amazing piece of art you’ve created. But I have a caution. Because I didn’t start writing to publish, it was several years before I revisited my original three books armed with my newfound understanding of the rules and regulations for fiction writing. And while I will stress here that I DO NOT believe in following all the rules religiously, there are some that simply cannot be pooh-poohed. Those three novels are proof of that. When I compare the now polished – and edited by an outside editor – books, the differences blow me away. And even if you go into a book full of knowledge, please, please, let your book sit for a few months before you push that button to launch your baby out into the world. So much perspective can be gained by simply stowing it away long enough to be able to revisit it without the rose colored glasses of new love.

So there you have it, a glimpse into my journey so far as well as a glimpse into my crazy mind. Light and love and well wishes to all you wonderful writers who have heeded the call of your heart to embark on a task that few will ever understand.

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About Rylee Black:

I’m a wife, mother of four – two (a girl and a boy) I gave birth to two (amazing girls) I was blessed with through marriage- and sixteen grandkids – I think…at last count anyway. By day I’m a staff accountant at a major aggregate/asphalt paving/ cement company. By night and weekend, I live my dream of writing. When I’m not writing, reading, or working, I enjoy spending time with family or playing outdoors (this part doesn’t happen as often as it should sadly enough), and pursuing a newfound dedication to fitness and eating well.

I’m originally an Air Force brat whose dad’s final stop in his military journey was Lompoc, CA – the place I call ‘home’. Lompoc is neighbor to Vandenberg Air Force Base, and a federal prison, and has the distinction of once being billed as a flower capital. Marriage took me from sunny CA to Grand Junction, CO in 1991. Divorce and remarriage kept me there. Grand Junction. is a beautiful high desert town at the junction of the Colorado and Gunnison Rivers surrounded by the Colorado National Monument, the Grand Mesa, and the Bookcliff mountains. Both these states I call home provide unlimited inspiration to my writing.

E. Rachel Hardcastle: Writers As Ghosts

 

 

Over the years, creative writing has been my candle in a world plagued with constant blackouts. I’ve struggled with everyday life and experienced loss, like many of you surely have, and being an introvert, I found writing to be an effective outlet for expressing my thoughts and feelings in a private and personal, but very public way.

The festering question was how can I fully experience life? The idea of merely existing between working, worrying about money or illness and watching the world attack itself through war, frightened me. I needed to explore the outcome of a berserk life like that.

Reading back through my published novels, I see traces of those morals and messages between the lines of every story. Like a journal entry, each paragraph acts as a personal signature, reading, there is blood and tears on these pages. They mean something to me. They can mean something to you. And, it’s been said by several of my loyal readers that there is an unintentional, almost spiritual voice nudging my words, urging people to change for the better, like a lingering ghost.

To me, writing a novel is a chance to explore my own beliefs and musings. I’d like to leave something of worth behind. Through this subconscious mission I type and my words find meaning. My voice is forever recorded. I want to haunt my readers in the best way because, like most authors, I long to be a memorable name upon the shelves; to have something drawing people to me and thrusting them forward as so many writers once did for me.

Now the Halloween season is upon us, take a deep breath as you write and feel a part of you cross over to the world you’re creating. Release a ghost that connects deeply with your reader. Release one that persists and exists as hundreds of characters living hundreds of adventures. Inject some of your memories, struggles and lessons learned into your writing.

You’re a writer for a reason, to be someone’s ghost when they’re on the train to work, in the bath or lying in bed at night. We’ll all be someone’s ghost for real, some day. May as well start early.

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emma-hardcastle

E. Rachael Hardcastle
Author & Editor

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Tom Zumwalt: Here We See the Writer in Its Natural Habitat…



Here we see the writer at work. A breakdown of the writing process. Rewind the tape, please:

Arrive home, ready to write.
I’m thirsty, so get water first.
Nope, that’s not what I wanted. Get flavored water. Yes, that’s better.
Cat wants to go outside. Open door. Cat doesn’t want to go outside.
I want something hot to drink. Put tea kettle on.
Cat wants to eat. Other cat wakes up to sounds of other cat eating. Feed other cat.
Now I’m hungry, but I don’t want a full meal. Get low-fat snacks. Hot water’s ready.
Gather snacks, flavored water, and tea. Head downstairs. Turn computer on.
Cat wants to go outside.
Cat doesn’t want to go outside.
Now I have to go to the bathroom.
Those weren’t the snacks I wanted. Go upstairs to get other snacks.

Want coffee instead of tea.
Fix coffee.
Cat wants to eat.
Feed cat.
Cat doesn’t want to eat.
Come back downstairs. Forgot napkin.
Nails need trimming. Can’t type with long nails. Hunt for nail clipper. Trim nails.
Need handkerchief. Find handkerchief.
Need writing music. Find appropriate music.
Start writing.
Time for bed.
 
Keep writing, friends.
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Stuff I Write — Welcome to a place of writing. I hope this will be an interactive blog, where all of us who write, want to write, or have ever thought about writing, can share ideas. Enjoy.

Dan Ellis Crime Fiction: Why Your Character Might Commit a Crime – What Can Social Science Tell Us?

“He was slouched in a worn armchair positioned in the centre of a cluttered dingy living room. The amber streetlight permeated through the yellowed net curtains. The flicker of the TV screen gently illuminated his motionless face. A burnt out cigarette was wedged between his bloody fingers, and his other hand gripped an empty bottle of scotch. For hours he hadn’t moved, contemplating what he had just done.”

If you write crime fiction, there is no doubt you’ve had a character in a similar scenario to this. They have just committed a crime, attacked someone, killed someone perhaps? The reasons why they may have done this are probably tied into specific events in the character’s life or their personality. Or maybe the plot is to blame – the treacherous conditions you have forced them to go through?

But if you are looking to base the characters’ actions in reality. To create a set of circumstances that are believable and grounded in widely accepted theory, social science can help. I want to take you through some basic criminological and sociological explanations (without the jargon!) of conditions that may push your character to do the dirty deed. Just some questions to think about when you are planning a story or building a character.

What sort of person is most, or least likely to murder someone? What sort of background or upbringing makes the ideal recipe for a criminal? Or what in particular about a society creates the ideal environment for criminality?

Are we in control of our actions?

Let’s take the individual. Do you believe that we are rational actors that make our own decisions? Or do you believe in the idea that there are bigger forces in play that push us into certain behaviours?

These are good questions to start with when creating a character or setting up the ‘laws’ of your story. Depending on which one you lean towards will result in different characters and suit different plots. For example, a rational actor that consciously makes their own calculated decisions is very different from an actor that is not in control and has been influenced by various factors that ultimately have made them act irrationally.

An area of criminology called cultural criminology suggests that people get a buzz from committing a crime, there is a certain thrill element. So here, the actor is fully aware of what they are doing and they have proactively planned to do it, or even built a sub-culture around it. Good examples here would be joy riding or graffiti.

Graffiti is an interesting one because many graffiti artists don’t consider it to be a crime in the first place. This is something else to think about in your story’s world – what sorts of crimes are taken seriously? If a certain type of crime is not heavily enforced or does not carry a particularly harsh penalty, are people more likely to do it?

What about a serial killer? An obvious type of criminal for a crime story. This generally tends towards psychological explanations, but sociology has something to say too. It has been found that many serial killers or people that have murdered someone have had a traumatic experience of sorts. Perhaps as a child they were abused or witnessed horrific violence.

These are probably the more popularised theories of crime given the amount of movies and books based on killers. But the question here is, are they making rational decisions – or have they been influenced by external factors that have pushed them to commit the crime?

Does our socio-economic background determine our criminality?

This area of social science asks what influence a person’s environment has on their actions. The example of a murderer’s upbringing I mentioned earlier is an example, but it is more than just childhood experience.

Take a thief. They may be choosing to steal or get a thrill out of it, or maybe they have a starving family and have no choice in the matter. But going deeper than this, if they live in a deprived area where the authorities are less present, it’s probably more likely that there will be more theft going on.

Broken Window theory suggests that if a certain type of crime appears in a certain area and is not dealt with, it will become more commonplace. So if a drug dealer starts dispensing on a particular road and is never approached by authorities, it’s likely that more dealers will start operating in that area – this can then affect the residents growing up in that environment – or your character!

They may have had a poor education, in the academic and social sense. In this case they may not have developed appropriate morals, or the line between good and bad is distorted. They may not comprehend or understand the consequences of their actions. In a similar way, they may not have fully developed their social interaction skills. Here, they may become agitated or violent just because they feel they are not understood, or struggle to get their point across to someone in a collected manner.

What sort of society creates criminality?

When you are deciding on the setting of your story, the country will make a big difference in how crime is represented. Crime in Western countries like Britain or USA will be very different to crime in third world countries like Libya or Niger.

Depending on how the fabric of society is weaved will affect how its citizens perceive and react to crime. The government is probably the most influential institution here. Does the government enforce its laws appropriately? Are they locking people up for no good reason or torturing people? All of this will affect each and every citizen. The better the country governs their society and responds to crime; the less likely crime is to occur (well, that’s the theory).

Similarly, how are the countries citizens treated? Are there extreme policies in place that pressurise people’s everyday lives? For example, austerity measures in Britain which make it difficult for people on low income to get by, coupled tensions and conflict between different groups. Or, if the government are seen to exclude a certain group of people in society, like youths, this could encourage disorder such as riots.

Another example of this, and again a very popularised one, is how the criminal justice system works. Is it fair? Is justice delivered? If a murderer is released without charge how might that impact the victims – it could lead to vigilantism. What about prisons, if your story is set in a prison, how are the inmates’ rights upheld? Are they physically abused? All of these factors will all affect how your characters behave in any given situation. So it’s worth checking out government policies or researching where promises haven’t been kept – anything that might push someone into angst and act irrationally.

So I hope that this has helped to get your creative juices flowing! There is definitely a lot to think about in creating a relatable criminal story, but social science has endless amounts of answers that can help add depth to a crime fiction story.

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Dan is the creator of the Facebook group ‘The Crime Writers Den’, aspiring novelist, and social science student. The group has enabled writers to connect with criminal justice professionals, to help with technical questions, and just to chat about crime in a fun and supportive environment.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/631273680370573/?fref=nf

Karl Taylor: A Tribute to Sir Terry Pratchett and the City Watch

Sir Terry Pratchett was undoubtedly my greatest inspiration. He’s not as well known in the US because he is British but the man was a master of his craft. In his lifetime he sold more than eighty five million books in thirty seven languages. He was best known for his Discworld series which included forty one published works. His style was often called parody but I think it was much more than that. His wit and wisdom were unparalleled. His characters had the feeling of being real people. He had a knack for weaving multiple plotlines together seamlessly.  Finally, beneath all the humor and the silly characters, he knew how to tell compelling stories.

For me, the books that highlighted The Watch stood out from all the rest. They combined my favorite two genres, mystery and fantasy. I couldn’t get enough of them. Since it was a series of books, I got to see the characters evolve over time and it felt like I really knew them. They were much more than just characters to me. They became family. “The Watch” grew from a ragtag group of misfits to a large force that struggled to reclaim the streets of Ankh-Morpork. It felt like I was actually there, experiencing those changes myself.

There are many interesting characters that fill out this world. Ankh-Morpork, the city these stories are based in, is a character in itself. Lord Vetinari, the ruler of the city, reminds me in many ways of the vampires in the old black and white movies. Commander Vimes, the primary character, is cynical and jaded but he lives to uphold the law. Sergeant Colon, an old war horse with a military past considers himself the ideal sergeant. He spends the majority of his time avoiding trouble. Corporal Nobby Nobbs, is a man so ugly and small that he has to carry papers that prove he is actually human. The wizards of Unseen University often make appearances as does the head “man” of the library. The Librarian was accidentally transformed into an orangutan and found that he liked it so he refused the wizards when they offered to correct the mistake. His characters feel like real people, having all the character flaws you can imagine and they make his books come alive. The thing is, no matter how oddball the character might be, Pratchett creates characters you can still identify with. I even identify with the orangutan librarian. I hope that someday I can create at least one character like that.

I don’t even remember where I first heard of Terry Pratchett but he changed the way I think about writing. I love the way he intertwines humor even in the most serious situations and I often laugh out loud while reading his works but the biggest thing is that I find it near impossible to put them down. I do my best to emulate him in my own writing. I’ll never be a master of it the way he was but I will never quit trying. It would have been my fondest wish to have met him face to face but I am too late. On March 12, 2015, he passed away due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease. It pains me to know that the “City Watch” died with him.