Description Writing Challenge

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Before we could talk too much about description and imagery, we had to have descriptions to pull from. Writing Excuses’ Mary Robinette Kowal had a great prompt, that, while sometimes infuriating, is an absolute must for any writer to try.

The campers were taken to a garden on campus, and had to write a description of our setting for thirty minutes non-stop. Pens moving across the page the entire time. The first five to ten minutes are pretty easy, but after that, you need to dig deep, expand your senses, and really get creative.

It’s a fantastic exercise that feels a little like running. It’s not so bad when you start, then halfway through you hit this moment of “I’ve got nothing left,” but when you push through it, you hit your stride and discover an entirely new layer to describing things.

I would recommend any writers take the time to do this for each setting their manuscript or short features, because it will give you vibrant, less obvious descriptions to pull from throughout your story.

In all seriousness, give it a try.

Elemental Genres

wx-11-cover-palegradient4-300x300In season eleven of Writing Excuses, they dived into the definitions of elemental genres. Here’s the framework they posted. I’m included their definition because it’s better worded than mine.

Elemental genres are the things that make you read, the emotional resonance that drives a story. Not bookshelf genres, but elemental genres. The 11 elemental genres planned are wonder, idea, adventure, horror, mystery, thriller, humor, relationship, drama, issue, and ensemble. This is a framework for talking about what makes readers turn the page and have emotional responses, not a hard-and-fast set of categories or rules. Elemental genres let you mix-and-match underneath the veneer of the bookshelf categories.

It was a fantastic season. They talked a lot about what defines the different genres and how to layer them with the plot, subplot, and character arcs. I particularly enjoyed Newton’s Laws of Writing.

[1] A word count at rest tends to remain at rest, while a word count in motion tends to remain in motion. Motivation? To keep writing, write some more! To start writing, start slow, then bump your goal. Build your writing inertia by writing every day! Oh, at the end of a session, don’t stop at the end of a chapter. Write the first page of the next scene, and then pick up with that jumpstart. Dan it all! Don’t sweat the zone — fight to make the most of each chance, and make sure people understand don’t interrupt me! Think before you start writing, don’t waste time ramping up. [2] Word count equals motivation times focus. Motivate by thinking about what comes next. Focus BICHOK and clear distractions. Consider word count per hour. Try a timer (sand timers don’t beep!). Meditation might be your ticket to a clearer mind? [3] For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. When you write words, the words write you. You also are affected. Writing is its own reward. Every word you write builds your writing skill. The goal of writing stories is to become a better writer. The equal and opposite reaction to writing is that you become a better writer!

Go ahead and give it a listen!

Writing Excuses Master Class

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Season ten of Writing Excuses introduces an entirely new format. Instead of doing 15 minute episodes, each focusing on a different topic, they decided to string the topics together. So while still fifteen minutes long, they took listeners through the entire process of creating a story start to finish. My favorite part about this change was that the writing prompts began to build on each other, which made them way more useful.

There were still wild card episodes with special guests that were one-off topics. I’m glad, because while I’m never going to not take advantage of the opportunity to get amazing advice from writers like Brandon Sanderson, I’m not new at crafting stories. Brainstorming techniques are fantastic, but I’m under deadlines for books I’ve already brainstormed, plotted, and started. To me the very best bits of writing excuses are the things that I can use to build on to my existing story in a revision pass.

But the podcast wasn’t created just for me. As the season progressed into character development and world building. I really liked their podcast on the magical 1% (chosen ones in an otherwise less magical society).

This is probably the best season to start with for new writers. If you listen on your computer, the liner notes have links to any of the podcasts they’ve covered in a similar vein, so you can catch up on the last nine seasons with a focused direction.

Here’s the link to season ten, I hope you enjoy it!

Combining Dialogue, Blocking, and Description

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I had several favorite episodes from season eight of writing excuses. They did an episode on writing pets, which made me realize none of my characters, not one, ever, has had a pet. No cats, no dogs, no horses. Hades had a dog once, but in the book, nope. No pets. I must work to fix this in the future. They did a great episode on retellings,   narrative rhythm, and chapter breakdowns that were super helpful to me.

But my favorite episode was the one on combining dialogue, blocking, and description. Integration is something that comes up in my writers group a LOT. You don’t want to have entire paragraphs of any one thing. Note I said paragraphs, plural. Occasionally having a paragraph or two of one thing makes it a focal point. It can be stylistic. But if you’re not doing it on purpose, description, thought, action, and dialogue should be interwoven. Dialogue requires natural beats. Places where the talking pauses and the reader gets to transition between who is saying what. Rather than just constantly writing he said she said, you can, and should, use description and action as those beats.

So

“Hi,” she said.

She leaned against the wooden table in a beam of sunlight doing something distracting.

You’d write something like,

“Hi.” Kelsey leaned against the wooden table in a beam of sunlight. More description or action.

There’s a balance to it. You don’t want your characters to get hyper.

“Hi!” Kelsey leaned against the table.”

“Hey.” I rocked back and forth on my feet.

“How are you?” Kelsey drummed her nails on the table.

“Great.” I slid into my seat. “You?”

You get the idea.

See how I use this technique in my work:

Poseidon cleared his throat. “As much as I’m sure you’d love to just lay here and ignore me the entire night, we need to talk.”

“Fine.” I craned my neck, squinting against the sunlight that blazed around the Poseidon-shaped silhouette. Motioning to the lounge chair beside me, I tried to pretend I felt safe. That I didn’t still remember the way he’d crushed me to him, his tongue snaking down my throat. After all, I had the upper hand now. Time to act like it. “Did you guys find Narcissus?”

The sea god nodded. “We’re watching him from a distance for now, hoping he’ll lead us to Jason. I maintain it would be better to question him, but . . .”

“You were overruled,” I guessed.

“Athena agrees with Persephone.” When Poseidon crossed his arms, sunlight spilled over his shoulders. “There’s more to gain through observation than interrogation. Plus, if he were to escape, it would lend more credibility to Tantalus’s story, and that could hurt your cover.”

“Have you guys figured out how Tantalus escaped from the Underworld in the first place?” The last I’d seen of the demigod, he was locked in one of his own cages with Ares’s spear in his chest, waiting for Persephone or one of the others to come lift his immortality curse. I’d been assured the demigod was now firmly dead and wasn’t going anywhere outside of his own special hell.

Integration is key. Thoughts, backstory, action, description, dialogue. Anything you could spend entire pages on will probably read a lot smoother if it’s all interwoven. Especially description. In writers group a question I ask people to consider is if you randomly look at 3-5 (sequential) paragraphs of dialogue, could your characters be on the moon. If the answer is yes, your characters need to interact with their environment. This is also called talking head syndrome.

And it’s important not just to have multiple elements in a paragraph, but to have them serving different functions. You can say “she said, angrily.” Or you can have her interact with the environment in a  way that shows she’s angry.

Brandon Sanderson took my integration spiel and did one better in this concept that I absolutely love, called the Pyramid of Abstraction.

The bottom of the pyramid, the scene setting, is the concrete foundation. The layers atop it can be more and more abstract, like tagless dialog without concrete descriptions, if that original foundation is firm enough.

You should listen to the episode, it really was fantastic.

 

 

 

Out of Excuses Anthology

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Season nine of Writing Excuses had more amazing episodes than I could summarize. They went into depth on each of the prongs for three prong character development. They had guest speakers. You should listen to the entire season.

But this season, I have to talk about the Writing Excuses Anthology. Each podcaster brainstormed a short story on the podcast (technically that happened in season 8). They wrote those shorts then edited them during a podcast in season 9. The anthology was then sold with transcripts of the podcasts and their edited drafts as well as the final product. Great stories from great authors and an in depth look at what editing looks like.

You can buy the anthology on Amazon here, or you can do what I did as my Christmas gift and get the hardback edition off Brandon Sanderson’s website, and get it autographed here (plus you get the ebook free anyway).

This is a fantastic inside look for any aspiring writer. As a writer myself, I can confirm this is exactly what brainstorming and revising looks like. At least in my writer’s group.

Now for a completely unrelated, friendly reminder. Aphrodite is still on sale for .99 cents! Be sure to check it out.

 

Pitching in Brief

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My favorite episode in season seven of writing excuses was an episode on YA Contemporary Fiction. The information on YA was nice,but what I really got out of that episode was the way she pitches. It’s awesome. I’d describe it, but it’s better just to listen.

Another cool thing that I was exposed to this season were The Pixar Rules of Storytelling. Check them out. There was also a fantastic episode on figuring out what comes next in the story. The best thing I got out of it was to ask does what your character need to happen next to accomplish their goal happen, and then put it in this format.

Yes, but….

No, and…

I was trying to come up with examples for this, but I found a better one on this post.

Inigo Montoya wants to kill the six-fingered man.

Through many trials, he enters the castle.

Does he find the six-fingered man?

Yes, but four guards get in the way.

Does he defeat the guards?

Yes, but the six-fingered man runs away.

Inigo gives chase! Does he catch up?

No, and the six-fingered man has barred the door.

Fezzik busts the door and Inigio runs through. Does he catch up?

Yes, but he gets a throwing knife in the gut.

Can he regain his feet and continue?

Yes, but the six-fingered man has a sword at the ready.

Can Inigo defend himself?

Yes, but he gets stabbed in each shoulder.

The six-fingered man bargains for his life. Does Inigo overcome the temptation?

Yes, and he achieves his goal.

What ever the goal is, “yes, but / no, and” is a reminder to you to not allow it to be easy. Make things worse, and the journey will be more exciting, and the payoff sweeter in the end.

The M.I.C.E Quotient

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My second favorite episode of Writing Excuses for all time was season six, episode ten, when they talked about the M.I.C.E Quotient.

The M.I.C.E Quotient was created by Orson Scott Card. M.I.C.E stands for Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event. Millieu is setting, so basically if your story revolves around a fantastic, neat, or meaningful setting, it may be a Millieu story. Stories like The Hobbit, or Chronicles of Narnia fit into that category. An Idea story revolves around a unique idea, something like Animal Farm or Brave New World would be an idea story in my opinion. The unique *thing* happening in the book outweighs everything else. Character is obvious. Event stories are stories where the thing that’s happening outweighs all. Like a volcano erupting.

While all stories have setting, character, ideas, and events, there’s a difference between having those elements and those elements being the defining trait of the story. A short story may focus on just one of the aspects, possibly two. A novel will have three or four, but in determining the focus, Mary suggested looking at it like nesting code or an equation. If your setting is ( the equation needs to end with ) and everything else needs to nest and resolve in-between. So if your story begins with your character stepping through  magical portal to a new world, it needs to end with them stepping back into the ordinary world. Everything else needs to be introduced and resolved inside those brackets in the order they were introduced.

It’s a really interesting way of looking at story building! Have a listen here or read the transcript here.

 

Story Bibles

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In season five of Writing Excuses, my favorite episode focused on Story Bibles (though they had a lot of great episodes on POV as well).

Story Bibles are a document, a wiki, or some other webpage or something you have that help you keep up with your universe. I use scrivener to some degree for this, but I’m toying with the idea of creating a wiki for the Persephone Universe where I go through the real life connections of the myth, the powers and how they work in my universe, the characters, and the rules. In fact, right now I’m writing a blog post that will link to all the existing content I have on all of that in my blog.

That’ll be the public equivalent of my story bible. Eventually, I may post the private one. The scrivener character profiles that go into all the development of each character in each story. The plot summary for that story. The layout of different places in that story, and the rules of the universe in that story.

The biggest reason I haven’t made the jump and created an actual wiki for the Persephone universe is because right now, I have everything I need in scrivener, so anything I do in wiki will just basically be me procrastinating on writing the next book. I don’t want to get world-builders disease (where you use world building to procrastinate actual writing). But I also don’t need to do that much because Persephone is basically set in our world. It’s an alternate reality of our world, but it’s not very far alternate. If I need to remember something about the setting, I can visit it. If I need to know how long it takes to get port to port in Aphrodite’s cruise ship, I can google it. I know my rules well enough to avoid getting tangled in them (gods can’t lie, charm isn’t forever, glamours work like x). But my magic system is fairly simplistic because my characters are actual gods. I don’t have to worry much about god complexes, because if any creature deserved to have one, it would be the ones who created the world.

But if I were to write a new story, set somewhere else with different rules, a story bible would be a must. So this podcast gave me a lot of great tips on creating one.

You can listen to it here or read the transcript here.

Juggling Multiple Viewpoints

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In season four of writing excuses, my favorite episode was one that focused on juggling multiple viewpoints. I primarily write in first person single narrative, however every now and then, my story leads to a place where I *have* to have another viewpoint character or two.

In Iron Queen, I had to add in Hades and Aphrodite because Persephone wasn’t where the action was. The story from her POV wouldn’t have explained how the gods found her, what was happening on their end, or the struggles they went through. If I’d only done her and Hades or her and Aphrodite, I would have been missing places where the three characters diverged,because plot wise it made no sense for Aphrodite and Hades to stick together during the entire search for Persephone given the fact that Aphrodite was a liability. Hades’s POV was needed to show Zeus going after the gods. Aphrodite’s POV was needed to show Zeus going after the demigods. Both were very important threads.

But it’s not always location based. In Love and War and Venus Rising, I had to add Medea because while Aphrodite and Medea are on the same island, Medea knows things Aphrodite can’t and make no sense plot wise for Aphrodite to learn. I needed an insider. I needed someone on the demigod side otherwise it was going to be a very short, very one-sided story.

I write them all in first person for my current series because that’s been the format so far for my series, but writing multiple viewpoints works best in third limited. I got some complaints about the change in format from Iron Queen, and I’m anticipating them for Love and War. But the story demands it, so all I can do is try to jump POV’s better.

Cue writing excuses. Some of their advice was obvious. Make it obvious who your POV character is right off the bat. My chapter names were the character names, I always had someone refer to them by name within the first few chapters or some other major identifying (“watching my wife chase after a human boy was hell” could really only be one character). And by giving them different voices. I worked very hard on those different voices and some readers will say I succeeded, others wills say I failed. So that’s something I still need to work on. It’s doubly hard for Aphrodite and Medea because the entire point of their characters is that they mirror each other. They are super similar characters that are just at different points in their development. They will be each other’s roads not taken. Eventually. And to do that, there needed to be some pretty heavy similarities.

They had a ton of great advice and pitfalls and over all it was a very informative episode of writing excuses. Take a listen here or read he transcript here.

Writing Excuses Season 1

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I’ve almost caught up on all the episodes of Writing Excuses. Writing Excuses is a fantastic podcast about the ins and outs of writing featuring writing god, Brandon Sanderson, and some of his friends.

Ahem, I mean, featuring the best selling author Brandon Sanderson, an award winning comic creator, Howard Taylor, the young adult author of I am not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells, and in later seasons the incredible, award winning Mary Robinette Kowal.

I’m almost caught up with the current episodes,so I figured now would be a good time to go back and recap what I’ve learned from Writing Excuses. Each season has thirty some-odd episodes and covers a vast array of topics, so rather than recapping ALL of that, I’m just going to talk about one favorite episode per season.

For season one, my favorite episode was probably episode 2, Blending the Familiar and the Original. I’ve heard Brandon Sanderson talk about this before,and I think it’s a very important concept.

The very best story ideas are ones that take something old and make it new. Buffy the Vampire Slayer took the whole high school is hell and all the social issues that went with that and added the twist of no, seriously, high school is hell. Now the whole supernatural high school thing is its own cliche, so to make the same thing happen again, he’d need to take supernatural high school is hell and then add a twist on top of that.

I did the same thing without realizing it when I wrote Persephone. The greek gods are a familiar thing, modern day teenagers are a familiar thing, but when I combined them and created a world where the myths are still happening in modern day, not happening again, not happening to descendants, but actively happening for the first time now and all the characters we associate with ancient times exist now, I made something different.

For better examples and tons of great tips and tricks creating something out of the familiar and the strange listen to the podcast here  or read their summary/transcript here.