When inspiration fails

What to do when inspiration fails? I have a deadline for a short story looming, with a character who doesn’t know how to get from here to there. To increase the beats, I need a challenge to throw at my protagonist that isn’t a trope. I suppose I could use a trope (evil family member, random attack by killer cyborg, getting in the way of an assassination/hacker attempt, love/hate interest) but that seems kind of lame in context of the story. What to do? I could go with the tried and true Vorkosigan method – full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes – but it’s an urban fantasy where there are no evil government agencies standing by to act as a backdrop. I have two days to go – ideas from the gallery gratefully accepted.

  • My main character is sixteen, a mage, and a web designer
  • She’s being asked to skin a web site and add some magic to it | someone else is doing the security
  • Some something gets thrown at her as a challenge (not the web site)

Maybe it’s the security person? Maybe there’s a cyber attack? Maybe I torment her with new magic waking up inside her? Security person ends up being a cute guy? Better yet – a cute girl.

Thoughts?

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6 books published in a year: now we are six!

It’s a little crazy, right? Our tiny publishing company, Impish Press, has launched six new books in the past year. After the writing, that includes all the traditional and hybrid indie tasks of

  1. Line editing
  2. Proof reading
  3. Continuity
  4. Book design
  5. Conversion to kindle
  6. Design for print
  7. Cover design
  8. Back cover / description writing
  9. Web site design
  10. Marketing

All while I held down a full-time job at Microsoft, and Raven took care of everything with the house plus full-time writing. Admittedly, I have a past life in publishing, web development and design. However, there was guerilla time management in there, along with more than a dash of persistence. My partner is encouraging me to think about making the next book I write on how we managed to write AND publish a book every two months on average. It’s beginning to look more than likely I’ll oblige him. From what I read, short kindle books for the Do It Yourself market are a good niche.

I thought I might start with a quick guide to exactly how I format styles in word (after scrivener export) to avoid tears before bedtime when I convert to kindle. With screen shots and measurements. Think that’d be interesting?

What subjects would you like to see covered, dear readers? Use the comments section and I’ll try to answer questions.

10 Things I’ve learned about writing and publishing

Some of the most important things I’ve learned over the past year of writing and publishing are

  1. The first (or fifteenth) draft is not ready. It needs an editor.
  2. There are many editorial passes (characters, plot, sensory, place, continuity, tone, tightening up, grammar, spelling, formatting, design)
  3. A beta reader is worth their weight in gold. They answer questions:
    • What was unbelievable, in context of the story
    • What was confusing?
    • What did you want to see more of?
    • What was cool?
  4. Follow the directions of the publishing house – if you don’t, it will not ever get past the mail clerk. Margins, font, spacing, cover letter, synopsis (1000 words max – some prefer 350-500), elevator pitch (Firefly = A western, in space)
  5. The content of a book needs to (mostly) be in the same voice (1st person, 3rd person – it’s rarer than you’d think that it switches at all)
  6. Research is important – tell the reader where/when they are, get the facts right, especially historical facts need to be accurate)
  7. The story needs to be marketable – it needs to fit an exact niche
  8. Sensory information is important (taste, sound, smell, touch, sight)
  9. Characters have motivation, feelings, internal voices. Use them.
  10. Place can also be a character in a story.

Remembering character information

By the end of book 1 – Library of Time – I had about 30 names to remember. It helped that I picked most of them with a botanical theme in mind as that gave me some clues to remember the names. However, what really helped was creating character sheets in scrivener.

There’s a location in scrivener, down at the bottom left part of the screen, that says ‘Characters’. Inside you can add a page for each character, or group of characters, by location, and fill in some information about them. This is super helpful when coming to write the next chapter or even the next book. Some of the things I add for each character are:

  1. Name of the character
  2. Their nickname, if any
  3. What they look like – I try to find a stock photo, illustration or actor who looks a bit like them
  4. Where are they from?
  5. Where are they living?
  6. Character sketch
    What motivates them? Their character (solemn, quirky, tricky, mischievous, lazy etc)
  7. What do they bring to the plot?
  8. How do they act when startled? When angry? When challenged?
  9. Their favorite color (shows up in colors they wear)
  10. Special abilities and role in the story

For what they look like, I don’t intend to cut and paste descriptions; that would be tacky and repetitive. However, I do want to know their hair and eye color, skin tone, general appearance and wardrobe. A friend said that characters need an ‘eye patch’, that is a particular element that identifies them to readers. Remember the ‘cigarette man’ from the X Files? James Bond’s tuxedo or his martini – shaken, not stirred? It can be subtle, but needs to be there. I remember reading a Kay Hooper novel back in the 1980’s – even now, I can tell you about the contents of a character’s purse, including the large-animal leash and tranquilizer gun.

Where a character comes from informs me about how they will act in a situation in the future. I want to jot down what they love, what they hate, what riles them and the kind of music they like to listen to. I may not use all of it in the story now, but in subsequent tales, those elements get sprinkled in to make the character more real.

What do you add to your own character sheets?

Writing process – top 10 ways of finding grammar errors

Grammar errors are one of the most pesky things to eradicate in the writing process. Scrivener doesn’t find grammar mistakes, and while MS Word is pretty good at finding normal passive errors, it fails to recognize idiom. Language is changing. Sentences can and often do start with ‘and, but, or, though’ in colloquial use.wordsForBooks

If you’re like me, when you write the first draft you don’t pay any attention to the rules. Well, truth to tell, rules are hardly ever my best thing. I tend to think in fragments; that means some of my characters share this trait. Enough said.

Even in a blog, the sentence construction is not a slave to the Oxford English way of writing. Be a bit boring if it was. However, the unintentional grammar error is the bane of a writer’s existence. It’s just fine to break rules on purpose, so long as you know your purpose. Richard Morgan stood the grammar rules on their collective head in Altered Carbon. His more stream-of-consciousness writing included sentence fragments much of the time. None of that made it difficult to read. Instead, it made his protagonist much more sympathetic. So how do I find those errors in the editing process? I have a few tips and tricks to share.

  1. Walk away from the writing for a couple of days to give yourself some distance
  2. Print it out and keep a highlighting pen handy to mark the pieces to come back to
  3. Read it out loud to a friend. The tongue will trip over phrases that aren’t quite right
  4. Do an editing pass with track-changes on
  5. Try turning it upside down – for those of us who can read that way, the comma and grammar errors jump out
  6. Do an editing pass just for dialog.
  7. Use Find / Replace to fix issues like quote plus period (“. wrong) rather than period plus quote (.” correct)
  8. Write with a manual of style handy – look up stuff that you know you get wrong
  9. Replace instances of passive voice (often uses words that end in y) with active voice (often ends in ‘ed’)
  10. Relax about it. No matter how many times you edit, someone will disagree with your choices

I hope some of these prove helpful. Please share the tips and tricks you have found work for you.

Writing process – the first edits

There are a few different notions floating around about how to edit a story. Rachel Aaron talks about an arc for each chapter, an arc for a book, and another arc over a series. I agree with her about having a structure, however, I like to be a bit more organic and varied about it so far. I have a rise and fall in each section. When I reach one of what feels like a natural stopping place, I go back and see if I can make the tension a little tighter, and the resolution a bit more satisfying, even if it is just a section.

However, Jim Butcher also gave some great advice in his blog. He talked about scene and setting. One of his examples was the second Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes back. His argument was that the whole movie was setting, culminating in the one scene “Luke, I am your father.” That was the payoff. Jim follows that structure in the Harry Dresden novels and the Alera ones too. It works for him, and I’ve learned a bunch from playing with the model of scene and setting or vice versa.

Another idea I’ve run across is one that I like a lot. I think it was Janeke who suggested making a pass through a story for each of the characters, to make sure they sound and act like themselves, with consistency. This is something I always do now. Wouldn’t do for one of the characters to be ‘out of character’ as it were. I’ve extended this to the places as well. Another thing that a beta reader suggested was to have a certain atmosphere associated with a character. Edward, a shape shifted dragon, is new to his human body and is just a bit clumsy in it. He is, however, a dangerous and ancient being who is larger than the human form he is currently inhabiting. Adding some grace notes like shadows to the room that give a hint of his gravitas are the equivalent of the music that accompanies Darth Vader (dum dum dum da da dum …) when he is on screen.

The same goes for the sounds, sights and other sensory information. It is those things that ground the experience we are writing about. If you are like me, those things come in to add depth to the world and the experiences. In the first draft the sketch goes down, telling the story and moving the plot along. In the second pass I want to know what color that robe is and how it is decorated. I want some light and shadow in the room and the fragrance in the air or at least a description of the food on the plate. Cooking is magic too, a person needs to eat, and magical beings are embodied in the world. I find that years after I read a book for the first time, it is the small embellishments that I remember. Captain Picard likes Earl Grey tea. Modesty Blaise preferred a one-piece swimsuit and a kongo as a weapon. Willie Garvin was all about the knives, but James Bond preferred a Berretta. I like to ask myself for at least one defining characteristic for each minor character, and more for the mainline characters, including turns of phrase and patterns in their speech.

I make an editing pass for each of the main characters, another for the sensory elements, and a pass for consistency. Then I ask “how could this be more interesting to the reader?” to tease out things I know but may have forgotten to say explicitly in the story. I am always learning more about the writing and trying to make each story better than the last.

I wonder what editing tips and tricks others have to share from their experiences?