Showing posts with label fiction writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fiction writing. Show all posts

08 June 2019

Is it drafty in here?


by Stephen Ross

The process of writing a book or short story is as varied as there are authors. Everyone has a different method. In this short post, I want to briefly talk about how I go about the business of write (I recently mentioned in social media that I always write five drafts, and someone asked me to explain).

I didn't always used to write this way. My five draft method has evolved over the years and become a thing. The last dozen short stories I wrote were all five draft works, and the book I'm currently writing, will, without doubt, be a five draft job.


DRAFT ZERO: The game is afoot.

It's not really a draft. Nothing is written down. I get an idea for a story. The idea sits inside my head, gathering and collecting other ideas around it, slowly growing in mass. A story might bubble away like that for years. At some point, critical mass will be achieved, and I will be compelled to put something down on (virtual) paper.

DRAFT ONE: The Basic Outline

I'll open a new MS Word document and start typing out all the ideas in my head. I'll start drawing out the characters and the plot: who and what is the story about, and how does the story flow? I'll often use index cards spread out across my desk (detailing plot points), to get a three dimensional feel of the story — to physically see it.

I structure my stories in three acts: 25% 50% 25%, with the middle act split in two. I do this because I learned to write, really, by writing screenplays (I'll write about this in another post). Because of that background, right from the start, I want to consider the structure and pacing. I want to know what the beats are, what the character arcs are, where the plot points hang. In my head, my stories are movies. I just write them down as prose.

Draft one can go on for weeks. A new idea will suggest three more. It's brainstorming. It's research and development. The point of this draft is to cook up something that has a decent beginning, middle, and end, interesting characters, and that has potential to be a story that's compelling, good, and all the other reasons we want to waste large chunks of our lives in servitude to the written word.

At some point, there's never ever any set timing about any of this, I will want to write the story's first page. You know, chapter one, It was a dark and stormy night...

DRAFT TWO: The Writing Begins

This is where I remind myself of something William Goldman once said about writing an early draft as fast as you can. No rewriting, no revision. Draft two is like a quick pencil typewriter sketch. I start on page one, then write furiously (spell check off) all the way to the end. Some "scenes" will spit out fully formed, and will change little through the following drafts. Some scenes will be random notes: "Bad man enters room and pulls out gun." 

Draft two is a proof of concept. Does the story fly? It might have sounded great back in draft one, but it might just as easily crash and burn in the second, when it starts to get laid out proper. (I have a lot of second draft debris smoldering on my desk.)

Assuming it does fly, and a solid story starts to unfold, then I'll start to look for plot holes and story bugs. If this is a novel, then a clear sense of the chapters will have emerged. The characters will have started to grow and develop, and I'll start asking the big questions: What type of story am I telling here? Who is the "reader" of this? Writing a story is really just answering a very long list of questions, and these start in the second draft: What names do I give these people? Short or tall? Does he fall in love with her? Does she betray him? Shaken or stirred?

DRAFT THREE: The Consolidation

The third draft is where the heavy lifting starts.

At this point, if it's a novel, I'll cut and paste everything from my Word doc over into Scrivener. Once a text gets to 30,000 to 40,000 words, it starts to get unwieldy to work with in a single file. In Scrivener, each chapter will get a folder. Scenes within chapters will get a separate text file and a descriptive label (Detective finds body, Boy kisses girl, etc.). And I'll create cards for each of the characters to keep a note of anything specific (has green hair, wears horn rim glasses, etc.).

Draft three isn't so much writing as repairing and fixing up, and upgrading. The first thing I'll do is nail down the plot points (do they work, are they in the right place?), and I'll look for continuity issues and lapses into illogicality. I'll fix any plot holes that have become evident. Long chapters might get split into two, or three. By now, the characters have started to come into focus and gain uniqueness; if not, I need to work with them, and give them more flavor. If the hero is still a two-dimensional stick figure at this point, I may as well give up.

Everything about the story is considered and examined. I will litter the pages with notes and references. Draft three is about taking all the random ideas and flights of fancy that I've come up with in the first two drafts, and throwing them into the fan. It's the draft that takes the longest, probably, because it's where most of the final heavy-duty thinking about the story, the structure, the pacing, the characters, and so on, takes place. All the questions need to be answered. Here.

DRAFT FOUR: The Writing Really Begins

This draft is where I start to make the text dance and sing, and spin plates, and juggle chainsaws. This is where I concentrate on the quality of the writing. I'll start at the beginning and work my way through the book, bringing each chapter up to a good standard. By now, I know the story every which way and the characters are rock solid (to the point of climbing out of the pages and walking around my house). Now it's all about writing mighty good sentences.

This draft is lots of fun, and the first one that actually feels like I'm writing; probably, because this is the draft I'm going to let someone else read.

When I get to the end of draft four, and I'm happy with it, I'll export the whole thing back into a single MS Word document. And I'll give it to someone to read: someone I trust. Someone who will call BS on any crap I've written.

The First Reader

The thing about having a Trusted Reader™ take a look at the work is the feedback: the cold, hard, subjective third-party opinion. Did the story make sense? Was anything confusing? High points? Low points? The trusted reader will think of things I never even thought of. They will see the trees, where I've been staring at a forest. And I will forensically examine and consider every item of feedback I get; what I learn will enrich the next draft.

At this point, I'll take a couple of weeks off from the writing. A little distance from the story will bring me back to it fresh when I launch into the fifth draft. And it gives me a quiet time to cogitate and reflect on the story... Yeah, I'll be making copious notes.

DRAFT FIVE: The Polishing

The fifth draft is the final draft (ho ho, before the publisher starts suggesting revisions). Armed with my reader feedback, and my own thinking and notes from my couple of weeks off, I'll polish and refine the text. I'll start back at the beginning and, page by page, go all the way through, rewriting where necessary, fixing typos, thinking of better words, and adding whole new chunks when they suggest themselves.

In theory, this draft should be the quickest. But I'm pugnacious persnickety.

After completing the fifth, I'll walk away and let the text rest — for as long as I can (deadlines, if any, permitting). Once I'm certain I'm not going to suddenly think of anything else to add or change, I'll submit (I'll have decided on the market (magazine, publishing house, editor) way back in the first draft).

Done.

Phew. I didn't mean for this short overview to run so long, but there it is.

FYI, I'm in draft 4 of  my current WIP (a book); a month's work has gotten me almost a quarter of the way through... and now back to it.




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12 September 2016

Father and Daughter Act


by David and Bridgid Dean

Part One: Father Knows Best

If I had to choose a few adjectives with which to describe my life, it might be these: fortunate…blessed…lucky…providential. It’s not that I haven’t had a few set-backs and trials along the way—I wouldn’t be human if that weren’t true, but I have a lot to be grateful for—I have Bridgid… my daughter.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for her siblings, too: older sister, Tanya, and younger brother, Julian. But, Bridgid and I, over the years, have forged a writing connection. I’ve shared a reading connection with all of them, but Bridgid evolved into a writer and that, as the Wizard says, “Is a horse of a different color.”

In order to properly train her for her chosen profession I’ve required that she read and edit nearly everything I’ve written over the past decade. This was not done, as some may suspect, because I am one of the cheapest SOB’s on the planet, but in order to provide depth to her appreciation of fine literature (mine) and round out her college education. The fact that her editorial eye virtually removed the element of chance in my story acceptance ratio is neither here nor there. I would have done her this fatherly kindness in any event. Plus, I did pay for that education. Now she’s gone and penned a novella.

Yes, for those of you who suspected this was going to be a shameless plug for mylatest non-selling novel, you were wrong. It’s a shameless plug for Bridgid’s book, The Girl In The Forest.

No, it’s not crime fiction like her old man pens, but it does contain intrigue, shady characters, and betrayal. Something we can all relate to. My daughter’s story is set in a world in which the border between reality and myth blurs and no one you meet is exactly whom they may appear to be. It’s fast-moving, readable, and features a very sympathetic heroine. As to how it came about, well, that’s a story I’ll leave for Bridgid to tell, as it’s as unique as the book she’s written. Oh, by the way, I finally returned the favor by helping to edit this, her first published work.

I also want to thank mighty Leigh Lundin for suggesting this post in the first place. Thanks, Leigh!



Part Two: When Life Serves You Lemons…

by Bridgid Dean

Bridgid Dean
Bridgid Dean
The idea behind The Girl in the Forest was born of a rather unfortunate event. In August of 2011, shortly after we were married, my husband and I had a tree fall on our house. Not a limb, and not a small tree, but a massive oak.

We were at a dinner party at my in-laws when it happened; when we drove around the corner and saw our little hundred year old house, half smushed, my Volvo buckled under a thousand pounds of oak, I could only laugh. A crazed, reality-is-standing-on-its-head kind of laugh.

My husband went inside and found the house full of gas. We waited in the back yard for the fire department to arrive, our cat Zelda looking from us, to the tree, to the house, as though asking, "Do you see this?"

After the fire department turned off the gas connection my husband drove us back to his parents' house. We spent the next ten weeks living in their guest room before we acknowledged that this process was going to take a really long time, and we'd better rent something. In the end it was almost a year before our house was fixed and we were able to return home.

Volvo
smushed
Those first two months were incredibly stressful, but things began to look up when we found our rental, the little cottage in the woods. We'd never lived outside of town before- we loved it!

Our landlord had a grand old home on what felt like hundreds of acres, with three rental cottages on the property. Ours was a five hundred square foot cottage surrounded by trees. It had a green metal roof, wisteria climbing the porch railings, and was so small as to be almost one room. We slept in a loft that looked out over the great room and the huge wood stove. As night fell you could sit on the porch and watch the sun set over the Blue Ridge Mountains, linger while the stars came out, then hurry inside when the coyotes started to howl.

The combination of natural beauty, isolation- and even something about the self-contained quality of a house that small- had me, before long, thinking about fairy tales. In so many of them, there is something magical about the cottage in the woods. I suddenly felt I was experiencing a bit of this first hand. Inspired by the surroundings, (and with the peace and quiet to really think!) I began to write the first draft of “The Girl in the Forest.”

This novella is a modern retelling of the Hansel and Gretel story, set it in a town not unlike Charlottesville, VA, where I currently live. The protagonist, Jolie, is new to the town, having moved there after her mother's death. She feels alienated and lonely, friendless at a crappy job, with only a cat for company. The recurring nightmares keep her from sleeping well, and she eventually gets fired from her job. At a bookstore she meets Jamie, a strange man with a past who secures her a job at his friend, Greta's, bakery. As Jolie starts to learn the ropes at this new job, the questions stack up quickly: What are Jamie and Greta planning? Who is Greta running from? And what is the creature that Jolie sees in her dream each night? And, perhaps most puzzling, why is Jolie the only one who can see the cottage in the woods?

It was not until I'd finished writing the fourth draft and handed it to my dad that I realized I'd written something of a Fantasy/Mystery crossover. You might think, after editing so many of my dad's stories, that a fact like this would not sneak up on me. Yet somehow it did, in the same way, I hope, that the inevitable conclusion to my story will sneak up on the unsuspecting readers. Like a coyote, or a wolf, or some other hungry creature, waiting in the shadows of the forest.



Thank you to Leigh Lundin and the SleuthSayers audience for the opportunity to tell my story-it's been a privilege!

27 August 2016

Hey Teach! Why do you do it? (aka Vegetables for Authors)


It all started in 1992.  I’d won a couple of crime fiction awards, and the local college came calling.
Did I want to come on faculty, and teach in the writing program?  Hell, yes!  (Pass the scotch.)

Over the years, I continued to teach fiction writing, but also picked up English Lit, Marketing (my degree) and a few odd ones, like Animation and Theatre.  Such is the life of an itinerant college prof.  (Pass the scotch.)

Twenty-four years later, I’m a full-time author.  Except for Wednesday nights, when I put on my mask, don a cape, and turn into SUPER TEACH!  (Okay, ‘Crazy Author Prof.’ Too much time alone at a keyboard can be scary.  Pass the scotch.)

Why do I do it?   As September lurks ever nearer, I decided to ask myself that question.  And give a completely honest answer.  Here goes:

1.  It’s not the Money
Hey buddy, can you spare a dime?  Part time profs in Canada are poorly paid.  I’m top rate, at $45 an hour.  I’m only paid for my time in the classroom (3 hours a week).  For every hour in the classroom, I spend at least two hours prepping and marking.  We don’t get paid for that.  At end of term, I spend several days evaluating manuscripts.  We don’t get paid for that either.  This means I am getting paid less than minimum wage.  So I’m not doing it for the money.

2.  It’s not all those Book Sales.
Years ago, an author gal more published than I was at the time said a peculiar thing to me:   “Aspiring writers don’t buy books.”

I found this alarming, but other authors since then have said the same.  They teach a workshop, and students beg for feedback on their manuscripts.  But they don’t buy the teacher’s books.  Not even one.  I find this bizarre, because I would want to see how the instructor practices what she preaches. 
Bemusement aside, I’m careful in my classes not to pressure students to buy my books.  They’ve paid money for the course, and that’s enough.

My point is:  if you think by teaching a course, you are going to get an avalanche of book sales, think again.

So why the heck do you do it, Mel?  That’s time you could invest in writing your own books…

3.  It takes me back to first principles
I teach all three terms.  Every four months, I am reminded about goal/motivation/conflict.  Three act structure.  Viewpoint rules.  Creating compelling characters.  Teaching Crafting a Novel forces me to constantly evaluate my own work, as I do my students’.  It’s like ‘vegetables for authors.’  In other words, good for me.

4.  It’s the People 
By far, the most valuable thing about teaching a night course year after year is it allows me to mix with people who would not normally be part of my crowd.  Adult students of all ages and backgrounds meet up in my classrooms, and many are delightful.  I’ve treasured the varied people I’ve met through the years, and keep in touch with many of them.

Getting to know people other than your own crowd (in my case, other writers) is extremely valuable for an author.  You’re not merely guessing how others different from you may think…you actually *know* people who are different.  This helps you create diverse characters in your fiction who come alive.

As well, you meet people from different professions…doctors, lawyers, salesmen and women, bank officers, government workers, labourers, grad students, Starbucks baristas, roofers, police, firefighters, chefs, paramedics.  I have my own list of people to call on, when I need to do research.

5.  It’s good for my Soul


I'm paying it forward.  Believe it or not, I didn't become an author in a vacuum.  I had two mentors along the way who believed in me.  Michael Crawley and Lou Allin - I hope you are having a fab time in the afterlife.  Hugs all around, when I get there.

Students take writing courses for all sorts of reasons.  Some take it for college course credit.  Some take it for interest, as they might take photography or cooking classes.  Some need an escape from dreary jobs, and a writing class can provide that, if only temporarily.  But many actually do hope to become authors like I am.  And when I connect with one of them, and can help them on their way, it is magic.  There is no greater high.

No question, my life is richer through teaching fiction writing, even if my bank account is not.

You can help Melodie’s bank account by buying her humorous books, like The Goddaughter Caper.  This will keep her from writing dreary novels that will depress us all.  Pass the scotch.


On AMAZON



25 April 2016

Brief Encounters of the Story Kind


by Stephen Ross

Writing a book or a short story is like a relationship. You meet a pretty girl (you think of a cool idea for a plot). You discover the girl is super smart and intelligent (the idea has depth and resonance, and is compelling), and you become even more attracted to her. You start on page one (you ask her out), and there begins your relationship in earnest. Your first several dates go off without a hitch, and you make good progress on the first draft. The relationship grows and blossoms.

Without extending this metaphor into the realms of the surreal, you fall madly in love (you get into the zone of writing the story), and love (your writing) flows as poetically as a Shakespearean sonnet on a summer's day.

Pause for sighing. Ahhhh...

But, unlike in the real world, your relationship with your story is doomed to failure because, at some point, the relationship has to end. It must end. You can't keep writing the same story for the rest of your life. There has to be closure. We writers sometimes spend so much time with our creations, they are describable as significant others: loved and cherished, honored and obeyed, and breaking up can be hard to do.

Sometimes, the breakup might be mutually beneficial, especially when the story has been a hard write, and there's been a lot of bickering between you and it in the course of its telling. You know those stories, the ones with lots of long silent nights sat staring at each other, with nothing to say. And you're just mopping up the loose ends, to get it over with, so you can go your separate ways, with both hoping to survive the bitter separation.

Worse, still, is when you leave the story for another. And it sits there, alone, in the café of your soul, drinking endless cups of coffee waiting for your return. And when you do return (after your torrid affair with another story), it's never the same.

For most writers, writing is rewriting. I think only in movies (and in our dreams) does anyone start on page one, spend a couple of months working through to page 400, type in THE END, and then send the completed book off to a publisher (where, of course, it immediately sells and is immediately published)). The first draft is merely the gateway into the story. The real writing comes in the rewriting.

But rewriting can't last forever. How many times can you read over a story and refine it and polish it? Every time through you find something new to fiddle with and adjust: another adverb to throw out, another debatably redundant word or phrase to toss, another he said or she said that can be dropped, because it's quite obvious who is talking.

And every time you get to the end of a read over, you think, yeah, let's do this just one more time.

The best way to end a story is at the train station.


You're about to board the train (to continue on your journey), and your story is going to wave goodbye from the platform. You both know it can't go on, that you must part, that it's over. You're done. All that needs to be said has been said, and you both know it.

The encounter, albeit brief, has come to an end.

Your train departs.

You both wave goodbye.

Tears.

To actually go ahead and shunt this metaphor firmly into the realms of the surreal, your story then becomes your child.

It goes off on its own, and you have little or no more control over it. All you can do is sit back and watch as it grows and makes its way in the world.

Hopefully, it'll graduate from high school (i.e., sell and get published). Hopefully, at least, somebody might say some nice things about it. It might even get lucky and get nominated for an award; it might even win one.

It might even mature into an adult and get picked up by another medium: audio, film, theater, computer game (and who knows what else awaits us in the future). And it might even one day grow up to be considered something rather special: an outstanding story among its peers.

And one thing is absolutely for certain: no "mights "about it. Your story will outlive you. And long after you have gone, someone somewhere may still know of it, have a copy in his or her hand, and perceive a sense of the love that once bloomed.

Shakespeare has been dead for 400 years, and we can still feel the resonance of love in his writing:
If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it...

Be seeing you.

P.S. The photo is a still from the 1945 movie Brief Encounter. If you've never seen it, give yourself a treat.

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08 November 2014

Comedy Writer Falls Right Over Cliff - Worst Typos EVER


Ever make a really bad typo?  I mean really bad.

My worst ever professional mistake was in an Annual Report for a one-hundred-million dollar corporation, when I was the director of marketing and communications.  Unfortunately, an innocent little ‘t’ went missing from the word ‘assets.’  The board was not amused by “This year, we experienced an increase in corporate asses.”

Recently, I found out what one little vowel can do to Rowena and the Dark Lord, book 2 in the Land’s End series.

Okay, REALLY uncool when you misspell the name of your own book on a guest blog.

Rowena and the Dark LARD is probably not the best way to get sales for a ‘Game of Thrones Lite’ fantasy series.

However, as I do write comedy, I'm thinking about a parody.
Is it okay to write a parody of your own book?

Draft one: Rowena and the Dark Lard

Synopsis 1: Rowena moves back to Land’s End and opens up a bakery.

Synopsis 2: Cedric’s use of dark magic goes totally out of control, and so does his appetite.

Synopsis 3: Thane and Rowena return to Land’s End and become pig farmers.

Synopsis 4: Rowena messes up another spell that causes all who look at her to turn into donuts.

Synopsis 5: Rowena kills off Nigella Lawson in a battle with pastry rollers, and assumes the role
of Prime Time Network Food Goddess <sic>.

Synopsis 6: Someone takes a totally justified whack at the author. End of series.

Postscript: Recently was quoted by someone as the author of ROWENA AND THE DORK LORD.  Trial for murder is pending.

Post postscript (where is a Latin scholar when you need one?):  Another contract out for the professional book tour company hired by my publisher last month, who, in all their advertising, inadvertently switched book 3 Rowena and the Viking Warlord to…wait for it…Viking Landlord.  Yup.  Obviously there will be hell to pay if you forget the rent. 

Have you some spectacular typos in your past?  Share them here!  I'll feel better.