Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Looking Back on NaNoWriMo

Today is the last day of the month, and my 15,740 words certainly won't get me a winner's certificate. I've essentially given up, and that's for a lot of different reasons, actually.

First of all, the past month has sort of been a wreck. October 30's car accident led to back pain for a week or so. I started my job at Target on the 4th, and they've been giving me LOTS of hours. I also got sick, which totally knocked me out for a few days, and then I had a bad reaction to NyQuil (which I took for the aforementioned cold) that put me in the hospital for tons of tests I can't afford. Feeling your heart beat 3-4 times per second is worth getting checked out, though, I guess.

The Devil's Blade was also not the novel I was going to write. I was planning a romance set in the 1970's with a farm boy and a kinda-sorta hippie girl. My back-up plan was to write a prequel to Among the People Lost that follows Solstice and Blaze in their time before Dante meets them. Then, on the day I started writing, I remembered this story. I remembered that I started to rewrite it and never really did anything with it, and I decided to give it a go.

Honestly, it started off okay. I realized pretty quickly, though, that NaNo just doesn't cater to my writing style. I don't like doing drafts. I like putting tons of time and thought into every sentence, making the story as good as I can on my first try, then going through after a few months of a break and looking for areas to improve. This whole write-tons-and-fix-it-later thing is just not for me.

I'm not someone who can let things go until later, either. I confuse myself if I put off research and make up a filler detail. I'd rather take the time to do my research and figure out what I'm doing beforehand.

I feel like my character development is severely lacking. That's something that I need to really sit down and figure out, because right now, it's going nowhere. Valdius is interesting, but not really interesting. Anastera, my main female, has about as much dimension as a sheet of paper. She has a history and abilities, but minimal personality. I never know how to write her dialogue. The best character I have right now is my imp Zirk. He's totally okay and needs, like, no work. It's really pathetic that that's how things progressed.

For now, I'm shelving the story for a few months so I can look back on it with a fresh mind. In the mean time, I'll finish off my Among the People Lost prequel I started that follows Dante and Hunter. I put it on hold for NaNo, and now that I've taken a break from it, I'm ready to get back into it and pump out the rest of it.

I'll keep posting writing tips periodically. I have quite a few more that I think will be fun to share. I'm hoping I can more or less return to the internet now that I'm over my cold. It's been a rough month. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Writing Tip #10

I'm blogging when I should be working on my webzine and/or sleeping for work later. Oh well. Let's get right to the point here.

Tip #10: Humanize your monsters.

I'm doing something interesting in The Devil's Blade - I'm making the Grim Reaper, who is often portrayed as a skeleton, someone who was once an ordinary human and who, aside from being deathly pale, looks like an ordinary human.

A lot of stories take the Beauty and the Beast approach, arguing that it takes a really good-hearted character to fall in love with a monster. I'm blatantly ignoring that. It's not that I think it's a bad concept; I just think that we tend to see monsters as these scary things because we fear them, when maybe, if we looked just a little closer, we'd find they aren't that scary at all.

Valdius keeps his face hidden until a few chapters into the book. He's shrouded in mystery, and people are generally very afraid of him. It's much more terrifying to see a hooded figure with a scythe than it is to see some random pale guy with a scythe. When he finally chooses to reveal his face, it's a very important moment for his character. It shows that there is someone he likes enough to be human with, rather than the monstrous facade he keeps up.

Similarly, I have an imp character Zirk who is a friend to Valdius. Despite being a demon, he's essentially a good character. While certainly not human in appearance, he's not scary, either. Valdius himself perhaps describes him the best:

He looks like a carved gargoyle and only comes to my knees. He has little horns and red eyes, but he's not very intimidating. 

I know a lot of people, myself included, that would even go as far as to think he was sort of cute, in that cute-little-gargoyle sort of way. He needs to be a likeable character. Making him some kind of horrifying monster would push a reader away from him and make him lose that cute factor. As it is, he's relatively easy to picture, and also looks pretty small and harmless. He doesn't come across as being evil just by his appearance.

Of course, like all things in writing, humanizing your demons (literal demons, in this case) won't always work, but for this story, I think it's the way to go. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Writing Tip #9

My NaNo novel is not even close to being complete. It's at 15,000 words and falling to bits. Mainly, I keep hitting this major issue of trying to decide what the hell I'm going for. On one hand, it's a fantasy. It has demons, spirits, and general supernatural stuff like demonic powers. On the other hand, however, most of that isn't 100% fictional. A lot of it has roots in mythology, religious texts, and the general knowledge (whether or not you believe in it is another thing) of how we understand demons, ghosts, energy, and death.

Unfortunately, it also has a huge amount of influence by Catholicism. I say "unfortunately" because religion is always touchy. I'm well aware that very few people will be able to look at this story the way I intend it, and the last think I'm trying to get my readers to do is go fall in love with someone who signed their soul over to the devil. It's intended to be a story about sacrifice and redemption, not devil worship and murder.

The biggest problem is that my story is set tentatively in the 1400s or so in an alternate, more fantasy-like England. This brings me (finally) to my next writing tip.

Tip #9: Accuracy Versus Perceived Accuracy

One of the things I really prided myself on when writing Among the People Lost was my attention to detail and keeping things very accurate. I used a car at one point that had front-wheel drive, so I researched what cars are front-wheel drive. I know most people wouldn't catch the details like that, but for the car people who read that, they'll think it's impressive that I was right.

Naturally, since The Devil's Blade takes place in a 1400s setting, I did research on the middle ages to be as accurate as possible. I then realized that I was screwed.

When you think of chivalry and medieval romance, you probably think of something like knights wooing the local women with flowers and kisses on the hand and such. That would have been doable. What I learned, though, is that the romantic kiss-on-the-hand came 200-300 years later, and no one gave flowers. Instead, it was all love letters, singing, and poetry. I think the Grim Reaper would lose at least half of his badass points if he regularly burst into a romantic song or poem. 

Clothing is also an issue. You certainly don't think of a reaper running around in tights, pointy shoes, and a doublet, or the female love interest of the story wearing an unattractive, shapeless gown sort of thing and covering her head.

It's becoming more and more obvious as I write this that I can't have a halfway decent romance novel if I don't break away from medieval accuracy and aim for a more medieval fantasy setting. Most people are going to think a kiss on the hand is totally time-period appropriate anyway, so why not use it? Boots existed. They may not have been common, but who cares? Let's put the reaper in boots. So what if no one gave flowers? Let him give her a rose, dew frozen on the petals by the cold that emanates from his unearthly body.

There's this big gap between how the middle ages actually were and how we tend to think of them. The truth is, medieval romance is outdated. It's not even what we would consider "romantic" anymore, in a lot of cases. Beyond that, most marriages were arranged until the 1600s. This story wouldn't even be happening.

Some things need to stay the same regardless, though. Premarital sex (which there is admittedly a lot of in Among the People Lost) is pretty much out of the question, especially given that both main characters are religious. Jewelry and women's rights are minimal at best. My lead female won't be going around doing any fighting like Solstice does in Among the People Lost. Religion plays a big part in every day life; this is when Catholicism really got big, and that can't really change.

I've really just hit this point where I have to abandon a lot of accuracy to get the effect I want to get. It goes against everything I taught myself to do when writing science fiction, but fantasy is not science fiction. There's much more room to modernize and adapt, and sometimes, that's what you need to do. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Writing Tip #8

Thanksgiving is fast approaching, and with it, a nightmare of a 9.5 hour shift in Target the gift-giving holiday season! We have family time around Thanksgiving, then Hanukkah, Christmas, New Years, Kwanzaa, Ramadan, and whatever other holidays that happen around that time that I'm forgetting. Point is, lots of family interactions and gifts coming up.
Tip #8: Write about a holiday or birthday.
Especially for NaNo, holidays and birthdays can add a good amount of words to your story. In Among the People Lost, I covered Christmas, which gave some insight into the mentality of characters living in a world where holidays barely have meaning and most of them are without family. Dante had lost all interest in celebrating, but his friends were merry and festive and insisted on cheering him up.
I also covered Valentine's Day, which was much more well-received among my characters, since it's a holiday for girlfriends and boyfriends rather than cousins and grandparents.
Holidays and birthdays give a lot if information on how everyone in your story thinks. They show who the characters are close to, how they interact when around their own family or their friend's family, and have plenty of opportunities for good memories or terrible experiences. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Writing Tip #7

Whee, my first cold since I started working at Target! I knew I would get one sooner or later. Going from next to no human interaction to a job where I do 50 transactions an hour is bound to wreck my immune system. Anyway, it wasn't a bad one, and it's mostly gone already. I'm still really behind on my NaNo novel, and being asleep for a day didn't help any.

One thing I've noticed with this novel is how few characters I'm working with. I have Valdius, the Grim Reaper, and an imp named Zirk who is almost always with him. Anastera is the lead female role, for movie terms, and I don't talk about her on her own much, either. I also have the ghost of a priest and Valdius' horse, but they aren't ever talked about on their own. The focus is always on either Valdius, Anastera, or Zirk. This made me think of something else my story is lacking that may be hindering my progress.

Tip #7: Put yourself or a close friend into your story.

I think of every character I write as an extension of my personality. Every character has a trait or two that stand out - Dante's bluntness, Solstice's sarcasm, Hunter's relaxed attitude. Each trait is a shred of our own personalities that we build upon and grow into a character who is centralized around that trait. Valdius repeatedly shows the sacrifices he is willing to make to protect the people he cares about. Zirk shows an almost human level of compassion beneath an exterior of mischief and sarcasm. Anastera...I don't know what the hell to say about Anastera. I haven't put much thought into her yet.

Point is, I see myself in every character I write, at least a tiny bit. Even if I write a character I despise and want to kill off at every opportunity, there is some small fragment of me - perhaps a flaw - in that character. It makes them relatable.

Dante was based off my boyfriend Tim, in both appearance and personality. Tim cares a lot for the people close to him and wouldn't mind putting himself in danger to protect them. Whether or not he'd arrive on time is another thing, but I digress. Those are a couple minor aspects of Tim that made their way into Dante. Other parts of Dante, such as his bluntness and artistic talents, are aspects of myself.

It's very easy to write a character when you feel like you really know them. It makes their dialogue and actions come very naturally. I know how my close friends will react to certain things. They all have their little things that they say all the time, their favorite words and phrases, and their fidgety habits. I pick at my lip when I'm in deep thought. Tim sort of furrows his brow, puts his hand on his chin, and tilts his head like he's trying really hard. He usually is, actually. 

Sometimes, we write characters and think, "Wow. This character is really similar to Steve, now that I think about it!" That should be a good thing! If you know Steve well, you'll know how that character, who is some fictional reincarnation of your real life friend, will act. It makes everything flow.

In The Devil's Blade, I don't really feel like I know any of my characters, and it's constantly slowing me down. I keep thinking, "Would he do this? How would she feel after all of that?" and it's wrecking my progress. It would be much easier if I had just modeled my characters a little more after people I know.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Writing Tip #6

I'm super behind on my novel! Yay! I also have Skyrim and do not yet have a good pc to play it on. Work needs to hurry up and give me more money. Work may also be fixing some of my health issues. It's weird. Anyway, on to this tip thing.

Tip #6: Give yourself a vocab list.

My 8th grade reading class did weekly vocab things. Each week we had 10 words, and they were words that were actually pretty advanced and new, like bulwark, incongruous, and myriad. Occasionally we had to write stories incorporating at least 20 vocab words, and I really think the story I came up with was fantastic.

So here's my challenge to you. Go through or something and browse around. Maybe look at little used words or something. Get yourself a good list, and make it a challenge to work them into your writing. If you have miasma, sinew, and Gorgonzola, you might think up a detail like seeing sinew and exposed tendons at a butcher shop while the nearby cheeses have a miasma of cheese scents. It can really help spark ideas while trying to get all those words in there, and it also makes your writing a little more interesting.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Writing Tip #5

This is a general rule I follow that always helps. I wouldn't have finished Among the People Lost without this, and it's something I'll use on every book or story I ever write, I think.

Tip #5: Picture your book like it's a movie.

There are a lot of ways to picture a scene in your mind. In my mind, it's always very cinematic. I don't think it's a conscious effort at this point. As scenes play out, my "view" switches just like camera angles switch and such. It makes things much more dramatic and intense, and definitely helps define the way my characters interact.

Let's use I Am Legend (the movie, not the book) as an example. If you haven't seen it, go see it bear with me. The movie is about Robert Neville, the last man alive in New York City who has a dog and a whole bunch of firearms to fight off savage vampire creatures that were once human. Sounds pleasant, right? Anyway, there's a scene near the beginning of the movie where Neville walks on a road that's crammed with dozens and dozens of abandoned cars that area all covered in weeds. The camera zooms out as he's walking down this street, and that's all you see - abandoned cars and empty buildings.

About a minute in on this trailer:

As a writer, you have to get across that same feeling of emptiness, loneliness, and abandonment without any fancy camera angles. If the cars are what would be seen first, then talk about the graveyard of cars and the empty buildings on the horizon. If the empty buildings come into view before your character goes over a hill or something and sees the cars, then talk about the abandoned skeletons of skyscrapers overlooking a sea of broken cars.

Mood is important in all stories, and so is seeing things from your character's eyes. The following is from Among the People Lost in a scene where Dante is standing on the roof of a building:
He stood at the edge of the roof, leaning on the chest-high wall ringing the building and staring out over the city. Lightning flashed in the distance.
It goes from the closest thing to him (the wall), to the things he sees in front of him (the buildings), and finishes with the lightning on the horizon. If that lightning was mentioned first, it's natural for the reader to place that lightning close to him.

When we read, we sort of start with the character we're reading about and build the scene around that person. When we picture things as a movie, camera angles often do the same thing. They start zoomed in on the character and then reveal the scene piece by piece. 

Good movies have good cinematography. Good books can, too! It's just a matter of making your reader really see what you're trying to convey.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Writing Tip #4

Skipped a day because of work, but let's get one of these down before I fall super behind! Also, I realize that so far, these are more "Character Development Tips" than "Writing Tips," but I'll get to more general things later. As I've said in the past, character development is the most important part to me. For those of you doing NaNoWriMo, good luck getting to 50,000 words if your characters all lack depth.

For this example, I'll be using two characters who have very little in common. I've used Dante in several other examples, so I'll use him here as well. He's straight-forward, quick-witted, and very sensitive to the needs of those around him. The next character is Valdius, the main character in my NaNo novel. Valdius is the Grim Reaper. He's trapped, alone, and detached. Both characters are highly skilled in certain areas and completely hopeless in others.

Tip #4: Use the 7 Deadly Sins to Create Conflict

Most things we humans consider bad or sinful can be labeled as one of the infamous 7 Deadly Sins. For writers, they make some good springboards. Think of how each would impact your character, if at all. It's a good way to see your character's strengths and weaknesses, and also see if they're well-balanced. Characters who have no weaknesses aren't particularly interesting, and neither are characters who are weak to everything in existence.

Dante is pretty good at controlling his anger. Losing control would put him in a very bad position in most cases. Piss off Valdius, however, and you can be prepared to face an army of demons. Dante goes about revenge in a very cautious, opportunistic manner to ensure his success without putting too much at stake. Valdius will kill anyone who gets in his way, regardless of how much danger he is in.

Dante rarely - if ever - makes the first move in a relationship. This is an area in which he is very shy and very respectful of the other person involved. Valdius will go out of his way to protect a woman he barely knows, even while it is very unlikely they would ever be together. He is also not afraid to break a few dozen rules and guidelines while pursuing that woman.

Dante has very little interest in the possessions and skills of others. Valdius would give anything to be human.

Both Dante and Valdius live in situations where possessions and wealth are meaningless. Both have the potential to amass followers, but neither is interested in power, either.

Dante overindulges in alcohol to remove his stress. It doesn't matter to him how much he takes into his system, as long as it helps him sleep at night. Valdius has no physical need for food and drink. There is also nothing he does simply for the joy of doing it in excess.

Dante is very confident in his abilities, but not to a fault. He knows when he will be outmatched and when he lacks the necessary skills. Valdius knows he means nothing to his master, and he is well aware that he will be punished if he is caught breaking rules.

Neither Dante nor Valdius is lazy. Both are extremely motivated to keep busy, Dante because of his friends, and Valdius because of the fear of punishment.

So there. Applying these things to your own characters can help outline their ideals and motivations and such. Happy sinning!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Writing Tip #3

I think I'll try to make these daily, since I'm on the 3rd and it's the 3rd. :P

Tip #3: Think of your character in the wrong setting.

Adaptability is one of the best things about humans. We're able to adjust to a different environment when necessary to stay alive. Think of how your wizard would react to suddenly appearing in 2011. Would he try to blend in? Maybe the sensory overload would be too much and he'd go insane. How characters react to drastic changes says a lot about their personalities, their willpower, and their survival instincts.

In most cases, I believe it would be easier on a character to go backwards in time. We all know how people dressed in the middle ages, and we could blend in appropriately if sent back in time. If your character is fighting and killing in a modern war, he would probably find a way to do the same thing if we put him back in the Roman empire.

I think it's interesting to think about how we and our characters would take on a role in a world completely new to us. What would you do if you arrived in a world that required your concentration to learn how to cast spells? What class would you take on in a D&D universe? I think that, in any world, we are drawn to the things we feel suit us. A doctor in this world might go for a WWII medic or a magical healer, depending on the setting we throw him into.

It says a lot about your character when you can look at a setting and say, "If my story were this kind of story, he would be that, without a doubt." 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Writing Tip #2

NaNoWriMo starts today! I'm seriously reconsidering what I'm writing. I fear I may have severely underestimated the amount of research I need to do in order to write a story that flows well enough to let me write 50,000 words in a month. Anyway, here's my next writing tip. Character development is one of my strongest points, so I'll be sharing lots of tips for that. I feel that good characters can make for an enjoyable book even if everything else isn't that great.

I'm using my character Dante as a reference, just because he's my most fleshed-out character. Dante's story is set in 2026 and he does lots of fighting in a realistic, essentially post-apocalyptic setting. He'll work for this example despite the fact that he is not at all a fantasy character.

Tip #2: Give your character Morrowind stats.

Yes, I'm aware of how silly that sounds. Morrowind is my favorite game. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it's this big open-world RPG where your character is very customizable and such. Got it? Good.

There are three options here: combat, magic, and stealth. They're pretty self explanatory. Dante falls under stealth, as he spends much of his time in the shadows of dark alleyways both to hide from enemies and to sneak up on them. 

Favorite Attributes
There are 8 Primary Attributes that govern your character's skills. These are obviously designed for a fantasy setting, but they can be adapted to work for a modern character such as Dante. You choose two of these when starting out.

Agility - Ability to hit, dodge, be stealthy, and recover from a hit.

Endurance - How much damage you can take and you much energy you have to keep going.

Intelligence - Your magic in a fantasy world, and probably something like your resourcefulness in a modern world, if not just taken literally. In D&D, low intelligence means you can't talk properly.

Luck - This affects everything you do in a small way.

Personality - How much people like you and how well you can talk to people.

Speed - How fast you are.

Strength - How much damage you can do with a weapon and how much you can carry.

Willpower - Maximum energy you have available, and in a fantasy setting, your chance of successful spell-casting. In a modern setting, this could be literal willpower.

Dante's two attributes would be agility (he is accurate, stealthy, and easily dodges hits) and personality (he is able to gain people's trust very easily).

I'm just going to copy this chart from the Unofficial Elder Scrolls Wiki. There are 27 skills in Morrowind. Each has a governing attribute and a specialization. Blue boxes are Combat, yellow boxes are Stealth, and red boxes are Magic.

AttributeSkills Governed by Attribute
EnduranceHeavy Armor Heavy Armor (3)Medium Armor Medium Armor (2)Spear Spear (7)
StrengthAcrobaticsAcrobatics (20)Armorer Armorer(1)Axe Axe (6)Blunt Weapon Blunt Weapon (4)Long Blade Long Blade (5)
AgilityBlock Block (0)Light Armor Light Armor (21)MarksmanMarksman (23)Sneak Sneak(19)
SpeedAthleticsAthletics (8)Hand-to-hand Hand-to-hand (26)Short Blade Short Blade (22)UnarmoredUnarmored (17)
PersonalityIllusion Illusion(12)MercantileMercantile (24)SpeechcraftSpeechcraft(25)
IntelligenceAlchemyAlchemy (16)ConjurationConjuration (13)Enchant Enchant(9)Security Security(18)
WillpowerAlterationAlteration (11)DestructionDestruction (10)MysticismMysticism (14)RestorationRestoration (15)

I'm going to put each of those into simple terms for use in any setting.

Heavy Armor - Plate armor (think knights and such) and other armors that are very thick, heavy, and are very stiff and rigid.

Medium Armor - Durable but flexible armors, such as a modern day bullet-proof vest.

Spear - A pointy thing on a stick. A character who kills zombies with a shovel would be good with a spear.

Acrobatics - Jumping, climbing, scaling walls, falling and not taking damage.

Armorer - Crafting and repairing armor. In a modern setting, this can be expanded to general craftiness and ability to repair things.

Axe - For dwarves and lumberjacks.

Blunt Weapon - Clubs, chairs, and other things used to bludgeon people without cutting them or stabbing them.

Long Blade - Swords!

Block - Parrying incoming attacks.

Light Armor - Very thin and flexible armors, like chain mail or a thin layer of Kevlar.

Marksman - Bows, guns, throwing stars, etc.

Sneak - Ability to remain undetected.

Athletics - Running, swimming, and walking.

Hand-to-Hand - Beat people WITH YOUR FISTS. Also martial arts like karate.

Short Blade - Daggers, knives, and short swords. 

Unarmored - Take a beating while totally unprotected.

Illusion - Make things look to be something they're not, whether by magic or mad skills.

Mercantile - Bartering.

Speechcraft - Persuasion, taunting, and general skill in talking to people.

Alchemy - Mixing potions and cooking things up. Cooking is basically just modern-day alchemy. 

Conjuration - Summon minions! I don't know how to make this non-magical...perhaps by having lots of connections and being able to get help whenever you need it?

Enchant - Make magical items and use them well. For a non-magical equivalent, probably something like fine-tuning an engine to get better performance or building a better mousetrap.

Security - Lock picking and disarming traps.

Alteration - Magically allowing you to do things like carry more weight or breathe underwater. This may be impossible to make non-magical, now that I've reached it.

Destruction - Fire and poison all around! This is pretty easy to make non-magical.

Mysticism - Telekinesis and teleporting. This would a be a favored skill by someone who meditates a lot to reach a higher level of awareness.

Restoration - Healing and medicine. 

Your character has 5 major skills (skills in which they are very proficient) and 5 minor skills (in which they are moderately proficient). All the rest get pushed to the side so your character can focus on the more important stuff.

Dante's major skills would be Marksman (his primary weapon is a revolver), Sneak, Acrobatics, Unarmored, and Short Blade (his secondary weapon is a switchblade). His minor skills would be Athletics, Hand-to-Hand, Block, Speechcraft, and Armorer.

So that seems like a lot of work! It's probably too much work and I probably just spent two and a half hours typing this thing up for nothing. Actually, it was largely just to put off starting my novel only to see it fall to bits. At some point, I want to go over some D&D stuff, too, so watch for that if you actually liked this. Have fun!