Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Princess, Punk, or a Punk Princess?

What is description? What is detail? Which one do writers need?

A description is just that: describing something, making abundant use of adjectives in the process. What is detail? Detail is how you describe something, using one vivid noun instead of a hundred colorful adjectives. The details you include (or exclude) make a huge difference in how something is portrayed. Now, anyone can use details like color, shape, general layout of a room, etc. A true writer, however, ignores all that unless it's exceedingly relevant. Instead, a writer focuses on the little things that stand out.

So, rather than noting idly that the walls are painted blue, a writer points out the chipped paint, the water-warped ceiling, and the spot on the wall that's darker than everything else where, until recently, a poster or picture hung. And the sunburn line on the back of his neck warrant more mention than red hair and tan skin.

Are you seeing the difference yet? I know I am, and I also know this particular point is something I really need to work on. You see, most of my descriptions pathetically look something like this:

Her brown hair was pulled into a half-ponytail with loose bangs framing her face. Powder was brushed across her nose. Her turquoise tank top was tucked into denim shorts and cowboy boots covered her feet.

Short, flowery, but vague and oh so dull. What is it about this character that they merited an entire paragraph? Or is the writer just filling space and killing time? What if it said this:

She smacked her gum loudly, and pink bits of it stuck in her tangled ponytail. One strap of her tank top was slipping off her shoulder and one side was untucked. Scuffed-up cowboy boots thudded on the tile as she walked by, leaving a trail of dried mud in her wake.

or this:

Despite the wind, not a single strand of hair was out of place. Lip gloss shimmered on perfect pink lips. Her rhinestoned tank top was ironed to perfection and there was scarcely a crease in her shorts. Polished, top-of-the-line cowboy boots adorned her dainty feet.

Can you see it now? Same outfit, same hairstyle, same shoes (excuse the cowboy boots; I'm from Texas). But the details paint a very different picture. The first: a stereotypical nineties rebel. The second: Miss Prom Queen. Pretty straightforward, right? But there's still the question of what it is about this character that makes them worth their space on the page. What if there was just one significant detail added in? Like this:

Her tank top, so carelessly worn, was still the latest fashion, and there was not a spot or a tear on it.
Or:
Half the rhinestones on her perfectly ironed tank top were missing.

Now we have some character depth. The one we thought was a rebel...might still be one, but she's still very well off, and thus we defy the stereotype. The other now has some contradictions going for her that the reader wants to understand.

Have I made my point yet? I hope so. When choosing your details, though, don't just arbitrarily pick something to point out. By all means, name the brand of jeans your character is wearing, or the make and model of the car that just whizzed by out the bedroom window. But make it mean something, and mean something important. Wrangler and Corduroy tell you something very different about a character. And a fancy 2016 Lamborghini versus a '95 Ford truck are virtually opposites, and if that car reappears it could be important to the plot somehow. Otherwise it will be immediately forgotten and you might as well not have put it there in the first place.

Every word you put down on paper (or type into your word processor, as the case may be) has to be meaningful to the story in some way. Otherwise you'd be better off leaving it out. And be consistent, too; if you mention someone has a neon green cast when he's first introduced as a talking point, you'd better make sure he's sitting out in gym class in the next scene, cast glinting in the artificial lights. But that brings up a whole different issue.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Lost at Home, Home but Lost

I'm currently working on a novel that is deliciously full of teenage angst, and one day I thought, what if I made that ten times worse by giving the main character amnesia? Then I was browsing through writing prompts on Pinterest and this one jumped out at me: "Never had I seen someone look so lost in their own home before." So, I'll be combining the two for this post, just for fun. Enjoy!

"Well, here we are," the brown-haired woman said, pushing open the front door. "We're so glad to have you home."
"Um...yeah. Good to be home, I guess," I replied, staring past her into the unfamiliar hallway.
"Well, don't just stand around. Come on!" The auburn-haired girl who claimed she was my twin sister grabbed my wrist and pulled me forward.
I stumbled over the step, still awkward with the crutches. The girl led me to a door with a handmade sign on it that read: "Jon's Room. Enter at your own risk." For some reason, there was also a drawing on there of a ball that looked like a football but not quite. A rugby ball, my mind supplied, though I didn't know how I knew that. I wasn't sure how I knew what a football looked like, either, for that matter.
The girl urged me into the room, decorated with rugby posters and an assortment of photos on the walls and on the bookcase and dresser. A wide grin split her freckled face. "Come on!" she called as I hobbled forward. I gritted my teeth; was it so hard for her to be patient? And what was she so excited about anyway?
"What?" I groused.
She rolled her eyes. "I'm going to help you remember, of course. That is, if you aren't just messing with us. Because that's definitely something you would do."
What kind of a jerk would pretend not to remember anything after an accident like that? I thought.
"Here," the girl said, lifting a picture frame off the disorganized bookcase. In it there was a family of four: the brown-haired woman, the girl, a man with dusty, rust-colored hair, and a boy who looked just like him. They were all grinning at the camera like they couldn't be happier to be taking a family photo together. "We took this picture at the beach down the road over the summer, because D-Dad said we needed an updated family portrait. That's you, of course," she said, pointing to the boy with his cheeky, freckled grin. Her voice caught when she said "dad." I didn't understand why.
"And this," the girl continued, putting one frame down and picking up another one, "is you, right after the rugby championships last year. Your team took second in the state."
I made a noise of acknowledgement and stared at the same freckled boy, kneeling with a ball like the one on the sign in one hand and a trophy beside him. He wore a blue and white sports uniform stained with mud and grass, the name Long Beach Sharks in bold black letters stamped across the chest. He looked quite proud of himself, despite the spectacular cut across his forehead.
The girl picked up another frame, and so it went for a good thirty or so minutes. Story after story she drove into my mind. This is when you learned to swim. This is you and your best friend. This is you and your favorite surfboard. This is you and your rugby team. This is you and me.
"Enough!" I finally said, cutting her off in the middle of yet another story. She gave me a shocked look tinged with hurt that made me feel slightly guilty. "Look, I appreciate the effort, but my memories aren't going to come back overnight—if they ever do. So just...leave me alone for a bit, okay? I'm a little overwhelmed."
"Oh. O-okay." She tried to smile. "Dinner's at six, so come out if you're hungry."
I tried to smile back. "Okay."
The girl—my twin (apparently) but a stranger—nodded, then she left the room, closing the door behind her.
Once she was gone, I dropped onto the bed. Then I took a moment to look around the room. The people in the pictures were all strangers to me. I hadn't even met "dad" yet. The picture of the boy, especially, made me uneasy. I saw the same face when I looked in the mirror, and I knew plenty about him. But I didn't know him. Nothing in this room—supposedly my bedroom—was familiar. Not even the clothes I wore were familiar. The two voices I could hear out in the kitchen were the voices of strangers. And yet it felt like something was missing, like there should have been one, or even two, more voices out there, laughing and having fun.
A hollow emptiness seized my chest. I pulled my knees up and hugged them to my body. Even with two other people in the house, I'd never felt more alone—or at least, I couldn't remember feeling more alone. I tried to remember something, anything, but everything before I woke up in the hospital was a complete blank. Supposedly I was home, but I didn't know where I was. I didn't even know where the kitchen was. Who ever heard of being lost in their own home? Supposedly I was Jonathan-it's-Jon Mills, but I didn't know who that was. I was home, but I was lost, lost in my own body and mind. Then the emptiness took over.

So what do you think? Feel free to try it yourself. Fingers crossed that I don't decide to rewrite 50+ pages to include amnesia as well as all that other delicious angst.


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Can You Feel The Thunder?

So, I figured it was time to take my own adviceto write, even if I have no inspiration. Since it's raining, I thought this prompt was appropriate: "Describe a thunderstorm without the sense of hearing." So here goes. I have now gone temporarily deaf.

I take a deep breath of damp, dusty air. The first drop lands on my nose, tipped toward the sky. The next on my cheek. Soon, little pinpricks of rain plaster my hair to my head, seep through my cotton t-shirt. My lips turn up in a smile, and lightning flashes overhead. The silence is eerie as it is familiar. Branches thrash against the soundless wind that whips my hair across my face. The answering thunder reaches deep into my chest, like a long-dormant beast awakening at the first kiss of rain. Red flashes behind my closed eyelids and the earth rumbles again. Water crashes against my skin like ice against fire. I spread my arms, and rain drips off my fingertips. The ground grows soft; the grass sticks to my feet; my toes are wet. Reverberating thunder raises the hairs on my arms. My eyes closed, my arms spread, my clothing soaked, I welcome the force of nature as it surges forward with voiceless power.

So, how did I do? It's short, but you know what they say: less is more. And even with such a brief exercise, my fingers are now itching to write more. Therefore, I have proved the point that Rule Number One works. I also learned that I am far better at waxing poetic on a single instance than I am at interspersing my writing with descriptions of the quality found here. That's something I'm working on.

Feel free to try your own description and post it in the comments. You are also welcome to offer suggestions of your own.

Now I need to find a place in one of my stories to fit a thunderstorm...

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Number One Rule

It's been a while. I'd like to say I haven't been idle, but I sort of have. I found a new TV show to watch. It was great fun, but my poor stories lay forgotten. And now that I've finished said TV show (an anime called Fairy Tail, if you're interested), I've re-learned the most important rule there is to becoming a writer. The Number One Rule of writers is...drum roll please...WRITE! Let me restate that.

The absolute, Number One Rule if you have any prayer at all of becoming a writer is to WRITE. 

Even if it's absolute crap, even if you have no idea where you're going with it, even if all you can manage at a time is two or three sentences: WRITE! 

I recently (like, this week recently) looked back at an old story I've been working on for literally years. I had twenty-six typed pages. I started with a short paragraph, written on my phone's note function during a break at work. Later that day, I took it and ran with it. Suddenly, as of last night, I had somehow written ten pages! And the inspiration is flowing again, almost too fast for me to keep up.

Now, I can't promise that will happen with every few sentences you write on a stagnated story (or even just a neglected one). In fact, at one point I had a story sitting for over a year, and every now and then I'd go and write a few sentences or do a little revision. But it took a long time for me to figure out where I was going with the story and wrap it up. It needs heavy revising, but at least it's done. Sort of. But the point I'm trying to make is, even if you have nothing to say, WRITE!

Now, in the spirit of that, I'm going to motivate myself to post more often on this blog and get my muse working full-time again. How? Online writing prompts. I'm going to research them and on a hopefully regular basis I'm going to pick one and post my response right here, for your joy and pleasure. Most of it will probably be raw, only revised for glaring errors, but it will get me writing more frequently again. And you'll probably get a kick out of my novice mistakes.

You writers out there are also more than welcome to post your own response to any and all of the prompts I respond to and post them in the comments below. I'd love to read someone else's writing for once—I get bored of my own. Go on. It'll be good for you.

Additionally, if you have any prompts you'd like to see me do, post it in the comments and I'll do my best to get to it. If your prompt request involves a certain fandom (like Harry Potter, for instance) the response will be on my FanFiction page. Though I won't make promises, since I'm less cultured than I'd like to believe. There are any number of books, movies, shows, etc. that I've probably never heard of. And there are certain genres I simply won't write.

Let's get writing!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Muse Always Wins

After nearly a week not having written anything in a particular story, I got a vague idea. I sat down at my computer and started typing, and...suddenly I'd written six pages! I hadn't planned anything beyond character bonding, but somehow I ended up with a genius sequence of banter and teasing mixed with worry and concern for an injured member of the group. And somehow I'd accomplished my objective far better than I'd expected.

This isn't the first time I've sat down and just started typing, only to suddenly find my story going in a whole different direction than I'd planned but somehow being better than anything I could have done in advance. And I certainly hope it won't be the last. If there's one thing I've learned that is absolutely vital to writing anything, from a poem to a novel to a short story, it's don't fight your muse.

I know, it sounds a little juvenile and a little too simplistic. But it's important. There have been times when I did try to fight my muse. I didn't like the direction something was going, so I tried to backtrack and start over, only to hit the same roadblock at virtually the same place. So finally I just let the muse do the work and, what do you know? I got past that roadblock and the story started to make sense again! I'm convinced this is because the story already exists, and you're just bringing it to life by tapping a keyboard or wielding a pen. So the moral of that story is, the muse will always win. So don't bother to fight in the first place.

There's also not really any such thing as writer's block, because there's always something that wants to be written. Just sit down and start typing, and you'll be surprised at what comes out. The best thing for your writing is just to let it flow. This might take you into uncharted territory, or it might be very uncomfortable for you, the writer (or you, the character). But what comes out of your foray into the unknown is almost guaranteed to be better than what you had initially planned.

You might protest, wanting to get everything exactly right. But there will be time for editing later. Just let the words flow off your fingertips, serve the meat, however un-garnished and messy it appears on the page at first. Then you can go back and shape it, add a little more spice, shift things around, add some sides, dab up some of the extra juices, and sprinkle a little garnish over it all. Then you'll have a finished product that looks almost too good to eat. Almost.


Monday, September 26, 2016

Writing Villainy

Have you ever read a book or watched a movie where you liked the villain more than the hero, or at least sympathized with him? I have. I also watched an anime where the hero became the villain, and wasn't that interesting? It's called Code: Geass if you're interested. But the point I'm trying to make here is that it takes just as much work to create a good villain as it does to create a good hero or heroine.

I don't have a lot of practice writing villains, because a lot of my stories are based around internal conflict, rather than external (or, in the case of my Harry Potter FanFiction, the villain is already established). But I decided to take a shot at it. Because villains are people, too, with goals and reasons for the means to achieve said goals. In fact, you could even say that villains are even more complex than the hero, because something had to happen to make them that way, and then they had to delude themselves into thinking they were in the right.

For my first attempt at writing a villain, I didn't start a new story. Instead, I created a D&D character! (Yeah, I'm a nerd through and through. I was ecstatic to use my new dice on Friday.)

As a writer, I take building a new D&D character pretty seriously. I actually write out the backstory, instead of just trying to summarize it. Doing this helps me get to know my character so I can role-play effectively in the future. In the case of this character, I built a rogue drow elf─in every sense of the word. For anyone out there not familiar with the high fantasy of Dungeons and Dragons, drow elves are basically the opposite of elves─they live underground, they have legitimately black skin, and they're mostly evil and depraved and hate everyone that isn't also a drow (and even that's negligible). A rogue in D&D is basically a thief or a criminal of some fashion.

Now, my character is a little more mellow than most drow elves (he doesn't murder just because he thinks it's fun), but he's still more of a villain than a hero. He's a hardened criminal, for heaven's sake! And in writing out his backstory I had to get in touch with my evil side─that is, I had to set aside my values and attempt to embrace his. The hard part was defining said values in a way that makes sense to the character and then figuring out how to write it. For me, being an decent person, it was very difficult to justify things that I normally wouldn't even consider, like murder just because someone was no longer useful to "me"─my character. (And the rough draft of that backstory still needs a lot of work, because I didn't do so great with that.)

But, that's part of being an author─you have to step out of your comfort zone, your little box of "me", and to an extent actually become someone else.

With writing heroes, that's the fun part. You get to go on adventures the majority of humanity can only dream about, become a much more interesting person than the one who sits around all day waiting for her dream to come true just because she wills it, etc. You get the drift. But when writing villains, it's the opposite. You don't want to be the bad guy (well, maybe some of you do), but you have to be the bad guy if you hope to write a story, novel, script, play, etc. that someone else will actually want to read.

Good luck writing villainy!

PS: Don't forget to check out my Inkshares project, and my FanFiction. I want reviewers, feedback, sponsors. Pretty please?

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

World-Building: Tougher than Legoes

So, I'm one of those people who likes playing Dungeons and Dragons just for the sake of designing a character, and who starts a new story just so I can invent a new world. But as I've learned through my efforts over the years, designing a whole new fantasy world is hard. You have to think of everything, from geography to history to lore, not to mention coming up with names for all the cities, rivers, mountain ranges, and forests, and don't forget the world itself.

I used to think I was doing pretty good at it. Then I showed my newest story to my brother, who tore my world apart—literally. Forget correcting my spelling or my storytelling (which is what I wanted him to do). He poked holes in everything, even the little nit-picky details, like, where did the main character learn to use a bow if she lives in a mining town in the mountains? I was devastated—that world was my baby, I'd worked hard on it for a long time, and it was the best I'd ever done. But I realized my brother was right. I did have holes that needed filling.

So, I'm here now to give a few basic guidelines, questions to answer, etc., for any other fantasy authors out there like me who are trying to design a new world and just can't tell how much is enough.

1. What is your world's origin? Who started civilization there? These questions will help cover any basic lore your world needs—legendary heroes, the birth of a kingdom, etc. This also covers magic, if you choose to include it—what is its origin? What is its reputation? And so on.

2. Use what you know. This is a basic rule of thumb for any writing, but especially in world-building. If you don't know what it's like to live in an arctic tundra, you probably shouldn't set your story there, unless you plan to do hours and hours of research. That doesn't mean you can't have an arctic tundra as part of the geography. It just may not be the best idea to have it be your character's origin.

3. Your characters are in part defined by the environment they grew up in. You can't just decide your character is going to be a bard and a sailor, and grow up orphaned in a port town, and for some reason can use a sword as well. (I tried to do that with one of my D&D characters. It took a lot of explaining before my DM was satisfied with my backstory.) You have to explain your character in terms of their background, which in turn means you have to figure out where and how they grew up, the geographic and societal climate, etc.

4. Speaking of society: What types of people/races populate your world? Is it high fantasy, with elves and dwarves and wizards? Where does each one fall in the societal hierarchy? What is the current political climate? This may not seem like a big deal, but when your character is at the bottom of the food chain, so to speak, you have to explain why. What is it about that character or said character's parents, ancestors, etc., that makes them so low?

Lastly, pay attention to the little details. You may not realize it, but naming the river near your character's hometown (even if it's an unofficial name) brings the world to life. It will take a lot of thought, especially if you're like me and won't settle for just any old name, but it will be worth it.

Unfortunately, there's no way to make the world-building process go any faster. But if you want your new fantasy world to come to life, to seem real to whoever's reading, you have to spend just as much time explaining the world as you do building each character and planning out the plot events. If you have a good, solid framework in the world your story takes place in, the plot should come naturally.

So, go out there and start stacking your Legos of world-building. It's harder than it looks, but it is so much fun.

PS: Don't forget to check out my Inkshares contest entry! If I get enough people to pre-order my book (and pre-orders are as low as $10), it will get published!