The first Wednesday of every month, writer Jeff Bowles muses on life, creativity, and our collective destinies as makers of cool stuff. You’re a writer, but have you ever thought about how or why? Here are some words to live by.
The Big Chill
I’ve always tended to believe there’s a time for action and a time for inaction. For instance, as a writer, I very rarely get away with working the whole year round. I realize it’s something of a controversial position to take, but I don’t like constant effort and much prefer writing in bursts. Perhaps I’ll work on the rough draft of a new book from Christmas to Groundhog’s Day, polish it up till early summer, and if I feel like releasing it myself, do that sometime in July. That’s usually how it goes. This year is bound to be different, though.
I don’t have to tell you, but 2020’s been something of a seminal time, both famously and infamously so. Even if it weren’t for the pandemic, we as a collective have dealt with politics, racism, the inherent corruption, or if you like, the non-corruption of the system designed to protect and serve us, and it’s still only early October. But yes, on top of it all, we do have a global pandemic to worry about. As Bob Dylan once famously sang, the times, they are a’changing. And not too nicely, either.
I’m aware I should be working harder on prepping my next major writing project. I’m aiming for the stars on this one. I’ve got enough details planned out in my head I could start outlining any day. But I haven’t yet. I’m choosing not to. Why is that? Because there are times for action and inaction.
Known by another name, inaction is simply observation. I feel the need as a storyteller to be the witness for a while. We all play the witness. In fact, it could be considered one of the chief characteristics of being alive. We watch the times, the places, the faces that come circulating through our daily experiences. And when something big like 2020 comes along, we are helpless but to stop everything and pay attention.
Maybe you’ve never paid this much attention before. Maybe you’ve never had the time. I’ve got news for you, 2021 isn’t likely to go any smoother. I’d like the opportunity to soak up the lopsided feeling of this year, like a beautiful but flawed piece of Italian bread marinating in extra virgin olive oil and herbs. Sure, leave that bread in its bath too long and it’ll come out a mushy mess. But it does deserve to marinate, doesn’t it? For the sake of fine cuisine?
Okay, maybe that’s an odd image. I’m more of a cheap peperoni pizza guy, anyway. The point is, if the world is changing, I’m no doubt changing right along with it. And if I’m changing—as a person, as a creative individual, a writer, and an entrepreneur—then surely the work I’m capable of producing is changing, too. Which means I can wait to tell that next story. The Germans have a lovely little phrase, one which has always fascinated me: zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. Things aren’t how they were five years ago. Heck, I’m not even sure last year was anything like 2020. And if you think for a minute you know how the world’s going to shake out from all this, I’m here to tell you you’re dead wrong. Maybe that’s why I’m choosing observation right now. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Of course, there will be some who don’t feel like anything’s changed at all. There will be others still who, in the face of great change, make the choice to dig in, refortify, and to be more or less aggressive versions of the people they’ve always been. No yielding or bending. Go on and write your old-school hardcore science fiction the way you’ve always written it. Financially speaking, who can say what a smart approach looks like anymore? If I knew that … well, let’s just say I don’t know. Still, from a creative standpoint, I know there are some fellow authors out there who must see the clear opportunity for growth.
I’ve watched so many lives change in the last seven months. I’ve seen it all year long in my social media threads, too. This couple is breaking up after twenty years together. This son is finally moving out and this daughter is abandoning a job she never wanted in the first place. Change is all around us, and I’d wager that if you stopped for just a moment, cleared your head, quit thinking for a second or two, you’d feel profound change within yourself as well.
So here’s what I’m advocating for writers this month. Unless you’re already in the middle of a project, don’t even think about starting something new. Give it to till the end of the year, or longer if you’d like. Witness the world for a while, in whatever fashion seems best to you. Yes, you could watch global events on TV every morning. There’s certainly enough of them to go around. By the same token, you could watch ripples of water on a natural pool, the silent fall of red and golden leaves while sitting on a comfy park bench, the smile on your son’s or daughter’s face when he or she discovers just how big and perennially full of opportunity the world is.
As for me, I’ll be plotting that next big book, but only in my head, at least for the time being. It’s a personal story, no heavy-handed global events to speak of. Yet something tells me, the Jeff Bowles who’d start drafting that book in December will be a totally different guy than the Jeff Bowles who’d begin now, next week, or even next month. This is a clear opportunity to, if you don’t mind the aggressive self-talk, shut up and listen for a while, and boy oh boy, gleefully shall I do so.
Stop and smell the roses, fellow writer people. Or maybe I should say, choose to linger a while and watch the roses develop. The world isn’t all that interested in selling you flowers at the moment anyway. Gather ye petals while ye may, know what I mean? And then spend the big fat stack of them in the Spring, when the world is lush, your creative mind is firing on all cylinders, and fingers crossed and knock on wood or whatever other inert mass you’ve got lying around—there will be no such thing as elections and diseases, diseases and elections.
And if you must think about revolution, revolutionize yourself first. Everything decent will flow from there. That’s all for this month. Have a good one, everybody.
Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!
Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!
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Some of the best advice I ever received on writing a novel length work came from one of my M.F.A. instructors, Russell Davis. He said, “Ass in chair, write the damn book”. And you know, he was right. If you don’t sit your butt in that chair and start writing every chance that you get, chances are that novel will end up unfinished, sitting on a shelf, collecting dust rather than on an Amazon bestseller list. No the only way to complete a novel is to just sit down and write.
Lately though, finding time to put my butt in the chair and keep it there has been a real challenge. All the strategies I had used successfully to create productive writing have fallen to the wayside since Covid came along and turned our worlds upside down and inside out. WtbR team member Robbie Cheadle made a good point when she said that lockdowns and quarentines have blurred the lines between work and personal lives. With many people working from home, the boundaries between work and personal time may not be as distinct as they were before. There is no commute on which to transition from work to home life, or vice versa.
That is kind of what happened with me. Although I’m back to the grind of commuting now, when I was staying at home, I threw everything I had into my writing. My personal life and relaxation were laid to the wayside. Then, when I went back to work, I was overwhelmed with work, school and all of the many projects I had started working on while at home.
Although my butt was in the chair, I found it difficult to focus on any one project and to prioritize which project I should be working on. My school work fell behind. Life circumstances changes that required more of my tijme and attention. My regularly scheduled blog posts weren’t getting written; I struggled to finish my short paranormal western story for the Spirits of the West anthology; and the book I had planned to write this year was just plain not happening. It doesn’t do a bit of good to place your butt in the chair, if all you do while there is stare at a blank screen.
So, I pulled back and prioritized all the different things that I needed to get accomplished. I regrouped, so to speak. Even though I am very close to earning a degree in marketing, I decided it would have to wait and I withdrew from my schooling. I went camping to give myself some ‘me’ time, and rediscovered the Colorado mountains that I’ve always loved, and my passion for writing, and found myself once more sitting down in front of my laptop and writing with purpose.
It was amazing, but once I started writing for the right reasons, because I wanted to write, not out of obligation, I was able to focus and the words fell onto the page. It just goes to show you that staying home and away from people doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be able to pump out the best writing that you ever have. Beside sitting your butt in the chair, focus is another necessary element.
In addition to getting this blog back on track, and doing a bit of restructuring on it, I finished the story for the Spirits of the West anthology, “Don’t Eat the Pickled Eggs”, and I’m currently working through the kinks in the publishing process, as well as working on my next novel length work, The Outlaw and the Rock Star. It is a time-travel western inspired by the music of The Pretty Reckless, and I have three and a half chapters so far. This is where my priorities lie and these projects are what I intend to focus on. Writing is where my heart is, and I feel like I’m back in the saddle again. Ass in chair, focus, and write the damn book.
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Not all authors can be prolific, turning out one, two, or even three books a year. To be sure, there are prolific authors out there. If you’d like examples, think Stephen King, Dean Koontz, J.K. Rowling, or take a look at my interview with the most prolific writer I personally know, Kevin J. Anderson. The words just seem to flow onto their manuscript pages with the right words, settling in just the right order, to say exactly what the author intended to say, requiring minimal editing and revision, churning out quality stories in mind boggling volume.
I am not a prolific writer. This is an epiphiny which came to me only recently. I know it can be done, but it’s just not me. Realizing this actually explains a lot about me. Now I know why I never could complete a NaNoWriMo. While it is true that I did once write a 35,000 word novel in nine days, it wasn’t the quality writing that I am capable of. It was a draft that was nowhere close to publication. I have to struggle through the plotting, and work things out in my head with my characters until I get it just right.
With Delilah, the first book in my western frontier saga, I completed the first draft and put it through a first read and revised, and ended up rewriting at least a third of the book because I changed one scene that impacted and changed everything that had come after, but the book came out better for it after two years.
The problem is that I’m a perfectionist, so anything that is less than as perfect as I can make it be isn’t good enough to go out there with my name on it. I don’t want to pump out a huge volume of sub-par writing just to bring in the green. My readers deserve more than that, and I won’t settle for less than the quality writing and well crafted stories that I long to create.
With the second book in the saga, Delilah: The Homecoming, I didn’t even get the first draft completed before the first rewrite. Around 40,000 words into the first draft, Delilah told me that the story was all wrong. Somewhere along the line, my plot had taken a wrong turn, and the story wasn’t going in the intended direction. (Yes, I talk with my characters with the stories in this saga.) When I reread what I had, I realized the truth of it. I had no idea where to take the story from the point it was at.
I tend to be a seat-of-the-pants writer. I get an idea and I have to get it down, so I just start writing. With short fiction, that’s not a bad thing, but when it comes to novels it can be. I could see a couple of places where I thought the story should go in a different direction, but the enormity of the task weighed on me and there were spots where I couldn’t see around what was already written. I set it aside for a month while I pondered the possibilities until I realized what needed to be done.
I may not be prolific, but I am obsessive/compulsive about writing, always having two or more WIPs in different stages of completion. While writing Delilah, I was also working on my thesis novel, which has now become book one of my Playground of the Gods science fantasy series, The Great Primordial Battle, along with completing several short stories during that time. Currently, along with crafting the first draft of The Homecoming, I’m working on two anthologies, preparing The Great Primordial Battle for publication, and working through the snags I’ve hit with my memoir, Losing Michael. It’s no wonder my books take years to write. Yet, I have the satisfaction of knowing that when I’m finished, they will be well crafted stories.
The soil of my mind is fertile and can produce an abundant harvest of stories. The children of my creativity just require longer gestation and growth periods. Stories don’t just spew out of my brain, ready made. They must be honed and crafted until they become the works of quality writing that my readers have already come to expect. But another thing that I’ve realized, with as many projects as I have going, when they all are finally published, and they are all lined up across my author pages and my website, it will appear that I am prolific to anyone who doesn’t know better.
The point is, as authors, we’re all heading toward the same goals, quality crafted stories. The path we chose to get there, they way that we approach the writing process, isn’t nearly as important as the fact that we complete the job. And we can all do that. What kind of writer are you?
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Losing Michael: Teen Suicide and a Mother’s Grief
“The Making of a Memoir” is a bi-monthly blog series which explores the stages of writing a memoir as I write the story of losing my nineteen year old son, Michael, to suicide, through his story and the tale of a life without him and the grief I experience every day, even after he’s been gone for a decade. Some progress has been made toward the actual writing of the book since the last segment. I made a final decision on the title above for the book, and work on the cover is in progress with Art Rosch at Starrts Creative. Although there is still a lot of material still to sort through and compile what I want to include, I managed to work through a considerable amount. The going is slow, as I knew it would be, due to the emotional nature of the material and the memories some of it awakens.
In the last segment, “Stage 1: Prewriting Tasks“, I said I expected this book to be the most difficult story I have ever attempted to write, and that has proven to be true. In fact, it has proven to be difficult in more ways than I had imagined. This segment was supposed to be titled “Stage 2: Selling the Story”, but alas, unexpected “Obstacles and Roadblocks” has become a more appropriate title. Over the past two months, I run into several and I’m still trying to find a way around, over or through one huge one in particular – legalities.
Memoir can and should be a work of creative nonfiction. It is a true story told creatively, so as to capture and hold the readers’ attention. What memoir is not, is a work of fiction, with fictitional characters and places. You are telling a true story, something that actually happened, something in which other real people played different roles, and to tell the story, their parts must be told as well, even if the tale doesn’t portray all of them in a positive light. A good memoir must be told with honesty, from the heart.
As I sorted through the plethora of material I have gathered and saved since my son’s death: his poetry, writings and artwork; my poetry and writings; and oh so many photos, I couldn’t help but think about the other people involved, directly or indirectly with the story of the events leading up to Mike’s death and also the events that came after, and I realized that there were more than a few, people associated with Mike, and law enforcement officers, who might not want this story to come out because of the manner in which they might be viewed for their parts in his death.
It normally wouldn’t be a problem at all. I’m writing the story of events as they happened to the best of my knowledge. Many facts surrounding Mike’s death were suspicious, and for a time I believed that Mike might have been murdered. Things didn’t add up, but the proof to back up what I know to be true was withheld from me by local law enforcement. I no longer entertain the idea that Mike’s death was anything other than suicide, without the proof that the events happened the way I claim they did, I could be open to liable in telling this story.
The individuals involved wouldn’t really be a problem. The obvious solution is to change the names. Even in a true story, real people can have fictitious names, without damaging author credibility. Authors do this all the time; you just state that some names have been changed and readers won’t feel cheated.
The law enforcement agency and certain individual agents present a bigger problem. Do I change the names of the law enforcement agents? Do I change the name of the area they represent? How much can be changed before a true story becomes a work of fiction? The proof I lack wouldn’t portray the local law in a positive way and they know it, so they aren’t likely to have a change of heart about sharing it with me for the book. They play major roles in the events leading up to Mike’s death, and the story really can’t be told without their inclusion.
Although this issue has presented a roadblock that appears it might be unsurpassable, I have a couple of ideas on how I might be able to get around it. I need to let it play out and see. If not, I’ll look for a way to go over, or under if I have to. This is a story that must be told, and I’m determined to tell it. By the next segment, in June, I should be moving forward once more. I’ll let you know how it gets resolved. I do hope you’ll join me then.
Join me in my writing journey through “The Making of a Memoir” the second Monday every other month on Writing to be Read: February, April, June, August, October and December. To be sure not to miss one segment, subscribe to email or follow on WordPress for notification of new content.
When I was in the M.F.A. program at Western State, they emphasized the importance of really knowing your characters. They had us answering questionaires about our characters which included questions about things that were never going to come up in the story, so it didn’t seem like they really mattered. I mean, who cares what Delilah likes to eat for breakfast? Or what her favorite color is? Unless it has direct bearing on the story, I couldn’t see any reason for knowing the answers to pointless questions about my characters. But I learned that I was wrong.
In order to be true to your characters, you must know who your characters really are. Readers may not know that red is your character’s favorite color because her daddy gave her a red dress on her eighth birthday and she thought it was the prettiest thing she’d ever seen, but you should. It may affect the color of car she drives after she gets her liscense, which leads to her getting pulled over while unknowingly carrying drugs in the car that her boyfriend stashed in it, which in turn can set off a whole series of events which otherwise wouldn’t have occurred. You might put her in a yellow Volkswagon Bug, instead of the cherry red Corvette she needs to be driving for the story to unfold, and our heroine to win the big race.
If you were writing an inspirational book, or a self-help book, you wouldn’t advise your readers to do something that was totally out of character for them because it’s very likely they would never, ever do it. Likewise, your characters shouldn’t do things that are out of character for them. Unless you know why your character is doing certain things, you can’t write in the proper subtext which will clue readers in to the motives, as well. The more you know about your characters the more their actions in the story will ring true.
By knowing your characters histories, you are bringing them to life, solidifying them into someone that will feel genuine to your readers. And these days, it’s all the fashion to interview your characters, or have someone else do it. These interviewers ask questions very similar to those used by my graduate program instructors on the questionaires they had us fill out. Your characters have to have past lives and histories in order to respond to interview questions, because they may have to do with things outside of the story line.
So, pull out those questionaires, such as the Proust Questionaire, or the Character Chart for Fiction Writers, and get to really know your characters. If you don’t know the answer to one of the seemingly meaningless questions, take the time to discover what it is, even if you don’t think it will ever matter. Challenge your character to an interview if you think it might help, or if you think it might be fun. Once you’ve developed the characters, write their stories true to who they are, to who you, the author have created them to be.
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While Book 1: The Great Primordial Battle is spending time with my alpha reader, I’ve been busy working on Book 2: In the Beginning. Now I know it seems strange name for a second book, but for this series, it’s actually quite fitting.
You see, Book 1 covers the time just before and after the Atlans arrival on Earth in prehistoric times, which result in a great battle between the Atlans and the monstrous creatures created by the angry Tiamat, Oldest of Old Ones. It is the story of how the Atlans came to be on Earth.
Book 2, on the other hand, takes place during Earth’s earliest civilizations. It explores Biblical times and even before, as well as visiting ancient Egypt and Minoan cultures. It looks at the beginning of time, hence the title, In the Beginning.
That said, I’ve finished the first draft for Book 2, and started on revisions. I guess maybe my writing process is a little weird. At Western, while earning my M.F.A. in Creative Writing, we talked a lot about our writing processes, and while everyone’s processes were different, I never found anyone whose process was like mine.
My first drafts are pretty rough, consisting mostly of the basic plotline. The basics of what happens in each chapter, so the way the story moves forward can be seen. Once, I have that down, I can go back and revise, adding description and action that helps the story move in each chapter, sharpening the image, hopefully, for readers. That’s where I am in the revision process now.
Before I send it off to my alpha readers, I’ll do another run through to check for repetition, spelling, grammar and punctuation errors, and eliminate unnecessary words. This is the pass that tightens up my writing to make it the best it can be before going to the alpha readers have a go at it.
Once I have it back with their comments, I may do up to three or four more passes, before I feel it’s ready to submit to publishers or agents. If all goes well, I will get Book 1 back from my alpha reader, which in this case may be a beta reader since I made revisions to the completed work after sending it out without raising any interest, about the time I have the final draft of Book 2 ready to send out for her scrutiny.
I think the main problem, possibly with both books right now, is a lack of emotion from my characters, which could result in a lack of emotional investment from readers. Identifying it as such is good, because if readers don’t care about the characters, they won’t continue reading. The challenge will be finding a way to fix it, so my readers will keep turning the pages. Fortunately, I found some great ideas for showing my characters’ emotions in a post titled Emotion vs. Feeling by David Cobett on Writer Unboxed.
The story is there. Now I just need to breathe life into it. That’s what writers do.
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The life of a writer. It’s what we all aspire to, right? But what do you envision when you think of yourself living the writer’s life? What exactly is it that makes it so appealing to us? And how close is it to the reality of being a working writer?
Many aspiring writers picture working in their pajamas, sleeping in or working late, running a schedule tailored to our own personal needs. Aspiring authors may envision book tours and readings to promote their published books, maybe even autographing copies for our fans, having strangers recognize us from our book covers. Others may see themselves traveling and attending writing events and conferences, meeting others in our field and networking. All of these are beautiful visions to have and they can be a part of what is referred to as a writer’s life. They are all worthy things to aspire to, but we may not be seeing the whole picture.
A writer’s life can be all that and more, but as with anything in life, it’s not all champagne and roses. Writers often spend more time on non-writing activities such as marketing and promotion, or networking than they do on the actual act of writing. Or they are forced to spend their time not on the creative process, but on promotional writing, such as query letters and resumes.
It’s true. Freelancers spend a lot of time promoting themselves in job queries, resumes and CVs. Aspiring authors spend much of their time peddling their completed works to editors, agents and publishers. Aspiring screenwriters peddle their scripts or ideas to agents, producers, directors or anyone else who is buying scripts and is willing to listen. And published authors peddle their books online, as well as at conferences and writing events, and perhaps even, like one author I know, at the local hardware store.
As was discussed in Pros and Cons of Traditional vs. Independent vs. Self-Publishing (Part 10): Conclusion, as well as in the preceding series, in today’s publishing industry, even traditionally published authors are expected to do a lot of the promotion and marketing for their books. Everybody is selling something. Whether it’s your writing or yourself, promotional activities take a lot of time.
Networking is another necessity. It’s really another part of marketing and promotion. We can’t get our work out there to be discovered without networking. In screenwriting, the thought is that you must also live in L.A. to network advantageously. I know at least two aspiring screenwriters who recently moved there in hopes of being discovered, but it’s too soon to tell if they will reap any benefits from it.While we may dream of attending writing events and meeting others of like mind, the reality is that these activities take both time and money, and the time you invest into networking, is time that isn’t spent writing.
Then, with all of these extra-curricular activities, a writer also has clients, editors or publishers, and a screenwriter has agents, producers and directors, breathing down their necks to meet deadlines. Of course, most aspiring writers or screenwriters consider themselves lucky to have deadlines. A deadline means that you have work that involves writing, so that’s a good thing. But it can be very stressful, especially if you’re actually trying to make a living from your writing, and struggling to make ends meet.
The fact is, writing isn’t all glamour and parties. Writing is a tough way to make a living. Especially in today’s market, when everybody wants to be a writer. Self-publishing has provided the means to make that dream come true, although there are no guarantees that your book will be a huge success. And self-published authors must do all of their own promotion and marketing, too.
Writing is a lot of work, starting with the creative process and moving through the motions to promotion and marketing. You might be able to do some of it in your pajamas if you so chose. Most of what writing is, at least for those of us who are still looking for a big break, is being grateful for every writing job that comes your way, searching for that one acceptance in a mountain of rejections, and endeavoring to persevere.
Is it worth it? You bet. There’s nothing like it when you find that one acceptance and know the whole world will be able to read your work, and you may be able to put food on the table for another month, or pay your car payment, or your rent. Writing is truly a labor of love, and this blog is the proof of that. It’s Writing to be Read, and I don’t make a dime off it. My reward is in each comment that is left, each blogger that takes the time to ‘like’ a post, and each new follower or subscriber I get.
Of course, I still search for a publisher for one of my two completed novels and I submit my short fiction and poetry everywhere I can. I still want my work to be discovered, naturally. But it does my heart good to know that my writing id being read, even when it doesn’t put food on the table, even when I have to get an outside job to supplement my income. I don’t have to dream about living a writer’s life, because for better or for worse, I live it.
One of the most important elements of a story for it to work is for everything to be set up properly. Your plot, your characters, and your resolution all need to be set up in such a way that your audience can believe them. If the audience doesn’t believe it, or “buy in” as it’s often called, then they won’t enjoy your story and may not even continue it. So how do you properly set up everything in your story so it works?
What does your audience need to know?
Think about your plot, your characters, and your world before you start writing. What does your audience need to know about each of these in order for them to understand your story? If needed, make a list. Add to it anything that needs to happen in order for your plot to unfold, and decide in what order those things need to happen.
The things on this list are the things you need to set up in order for your audience to get into your story. Does your character have a mental problem? Then even if you don’t reveal it right away you need to show signs of it, foreshadowing what is to be revealed so when the reveal happens the audience believes it. Does your world involve superhuman mutants? Then again, this is something that needs to be set up in your story so your audience understands the world. Even if you don’t want to reveal the mutants, you need to reveal that there is the possibility of something supernatural going on. Think of all these sorts of elements that will be in your story before you get writing so you have a clear image in mind of what you need to do. You don’t have to make the elements obvious or spell it out blatantly, but do find ways to at least hint at these details so they don’t throw off your audience when they come into play later.
When do they need to know it?
The second part of setting up a story is know WHEN to reveal things. How much do you need to set up right away, and how much can you hold onto and reveal later? You don’t want all these details to come out in a list when you’re writing. They should come out in small doses as necessary. For example, your audience needs to know right away that your character has an enormous scar if it plays into how people react to him/her throughout the story. However, your audience doesn’t need to know right away how your character got the scar. In fact, the audience may never need to know how the character got the scar unless it plays an important part in the story for some reason.
The common mistake I see when people are setting up a story is mainly not mentioning something until it is needed to move the plot forward. For example, if your character needs to know complex mathematics, but your entire story she never once uses math, it’ll seem awfully convenient if the moment she needs it she busts out some calculus. Anything such as this that is key to moving the plot forward, or key to solving a problem, should be established in advance of when the character needs it. If it is something that is constant, then it should be established right from the beginning. If it’s something minor, then it just needs to be established a few scenes or so before it becomes relevant.
How can I show it?
So how do you show these minor things in your story without them coming off as listing or uninteresting? Something like the mathematics example would be boring if the character just said “I’m good at math.” Instead, you could simply have a short moment where your character does some impressive mental math for some reason, or even have something subtle like a math diploma on the wall someplace. These kinds of small details, or small moments, can be a way to establish important elements without taking too much story time.
For anything minor, the quicker you can establish it and move on, usually the better. Anything that is a key element of the story can be established by doing continual small touches throughout the story as it unfolds. For example, if you want to establish someone has anxiety about something, you can have them behave in increasingly anxious ways until their full anxiety is revealed.
Ultimately, there will be three stages of setting up your story. The first is the things you’ll know right off that you need to establish before you even begin writing. The second will be the things you discover as you are writing. When you come across these things in the second stage, it’s important to remember to not just throw them in when they come up. Take a moment to sit back and think about where that detail could naturally fit into the story. If you just put it in where you think of it, will it seem like something that conveniently pops up to solve the story conflict?
The final stage of setting up your story will come after you get feedback. Whoever you use as your beta reader should be able to tell you what doesn’t make sense, and you can use that as a sounding board for what in your story needs more setting up, and what you can do less on. No matter how obvious you think something is, people will always have different viewpoints so if you can find a subtle way to set it up a tad more, it’s probably a good idea to do so.
Robin Conley offers great writing advice most Wednesdays on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next week to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.
Every story, whether intentional or not, has a theme within it. A theme is not necessarily a moral or lesson, but rather it is what your story is about at its core. Finding the theme of your story can sometimes take some work, as can making the theme come through in your writing, but it’s not as hard as it might seem.
What is your theme?
To find your story’s theme, ask yourself what your story is about. Maybe you won’t be able to break it down into a neat answer, but as long as you can answer the question you have the first step to finding your theme.
For example, let’s say you’re writing Die Hard. Your story would be about a cop who travels to visit his wife out of town, and ends up having to stop a terrorist plot. So what is the theme of this story? Well, it can be broken down in a lot of ways if you think about what the general terms of the story are: good triumphing over evil (cop vs villains), one man against the world (John vs the terrorists), or even how greed can lead to your downfall (the terrorists refusing to give up even though they’re losing because they’re determined to get the money).
The key to figuring out your story’s theme is to think about the larger concepts and the plot of your story, then try to break them down into simple terms as shown above. These larger ideas are the core of your story, and they help tell your audience what type of story it is. If you’re doing this and you are having trouble deciding what the main theme from your options is, ask yourself which potential theme if removed would completely change the story. The one that can’t be removed, and the one that is the biggest overall concept of the story, is your main theme.
How to show your theme?
Showing your theme throughout your story should not be hard. In Die Hard the theme of good triumphing over evil happens consistently. John is determined to do what’s right and to stop the bad guys, and despite all the trouble and missteps that happen, he ultimately always comes through. Even when he loses, it’s just further motivation for him to come back at the bad guys with even more vehemence so he can win. So for your own story, think of what your theme is and how your main character can represent that theme in some way.
Other ways to show your theme is to use something called mirroring. This is when you show the theme through minor secondary characters throughout the story. Sticking with the Die Hard example, you can see some minor mirroring of the theme “one guy against the world” when you look at the local cop who is stuck outside the building and is trying to help John. This cop is fighting against all the others to get John help and is the lone voice in the crowd. By showing your theme through these small mirroring acts you are also adding another layer of plot to your story.
You don’t always have to have the minor characters experience the same outcome as your protagonist either. You can use minor characters to show what the other possible outcome of your theme could be for your protagonist. For example, if your theme is good triumphing over evil, you could have a minor character lose to the evil to show the consequences if your character fails.
Can you have multiple themes?
As is clear with the Die Hard example, there is always a potential for there to be multiple themes in your story. Of course there should be one main theme that is the core of your story, but there can also be some minor themes that help build up your story as well. Maybe good vs evil is your main theme, but then you have themes involving love or, like in Die Hard, greed. These kinds of minor themes can contribute to your plot, as well as help deepen your characters, and many of them will appear without you having to force them into the story. If you look at your subplots, you should be able to see some of the themes that are present in them and bring them out a bit more so they are stronger.
In general, it’s a good idea to know what your theme is before you start your story so you can keep your writing consistent. Sometimes, however, the theme comes out and is discovered as you write the story. Alternatively, you can also start your story thinking the theme is one thing, but as you write you discover it is really something else. This is fine, and happens all the time, but if it happens this way make sure you go back once you’re finished writing and make sure everything is consistent throughout the story. The most important thing about the theme of your story is that you’re consistent, and the clearer the theme is in your mind when you start writing, the easier this will be to do.
Robin Conley offers great writing advice most Wednesdays on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next week to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.
Through all my conversations with other writers, I’ve learned that there seems to be two camps of people when it comes to naming characters, places, and things in stories. One group thinks that the names don’t matter, while the other spends hours finding just the right meaning for each name in their world. Personally, I think it depends on the story, as well as whatever it is you are naming. I do believe main characters should have names that mean something, or at the very least, ‘fit’ the character’s story, but I don’t think everything in your story has to have deeper meaning. If you want to give the people, places, and things you name in your story special meaning, there are several ways you can go about it.
One of the main things I do look at when I am naming something is the origin of the name. What country is the name originally from? What language is it? Is it predominant in a specific religion, or culture? These kinds of details can help you pick names that have more history behind them to help with whatever you are naming. If you have a character that you want to have an Irish background, then a name with a touch of Irish history would be perfect. It doesn’t have to be a historical or cliché name, but it is an option. Another option is to research popular names in Ireland and pick one that way instead. You may end up with a name that isn’t classically Irish, but it will still have a connection to Ireland.
The point of this kind of research for the names you give in your stories is that it creates a built in history for what you are naming. Without telling the reader, you are hinting at where your character might come from and what their family connections are. Now of course people in real life are often given names with no connection to their roots, and you can use this in your story as well if you want, but by making a deliberate choice to either use the name or not you are making every element of your story count. So be deliberate, and if you decide to go against your characters origins, then make that part of the story as well even if it’s a minor part.
Something else you can use to your advantage when naming a character, place, or thing in a novel are known preconceptions about the name you use. For example, if you use a name from a myth, many people will recognize it and have certain ideas about that character. Zeus is a mighty god with great power, who also happens to be a bit of a player, and a character named Zeus might be suspected of having some of those traits. There are all sorts of fables and legends out there from every different culture and time period, and even if you use one that doesn’t have meaning to the majority of the population it will still help deepen your character. The point is that it is another layer for a reader to find, and the ones that do will love the touch.
Beyond past myths, you can also use names from modern pop culture and such. Big names like Kanye or Justin are well known enough that they also have immediate pre-conceptions to them. Maybe in another 20 years they won’t have the same impact on your readers as pop culture changes, but for modern readers you can use names like those to paint a picture of who your character is. Big public names have personas around them, and if you’re writing a character with a similar attitude you can use those pre-existing ideas to help nudge your reader in a certain direction before they know anything else about your character.
One of the final elements you can use when naming things in your stories is symbolism. There are all sorts of names and words that have deeper meaning beyond them besides the word itself. Most names have some alternate meaning to them when you research the original language they came from. These sorts of meanings can be used to speak to the type of person your character is going to be. If you have a surprisingly brave character, then choosing a name that secretly means bravery could be a subtle nod to readers who know that. These are the kind of details that won’t change anything in the story for the most part, but they can add another layer of meaning to your story. It can be especially useful when naming objects in fantasy worlds.
No matter your take on naming in stories, it’s important to consider what the minor details of naming can do for your story. The small touches can often give a story the extra boost to make it something special. As a reader, I know I enjoy the small details that I discover later on about a story, such as deeper meanings in names, and it only makes me enjoy the story more. If you do go the special naming route, however, I find it works best if you don’t go too obvious with the symbolism in the name. You want it to be a small touch, not a neon sign in your audience’s face. Ultimately, if you find a special name is something that will add to your story, then use it, if not, then don’t. It’s your story, so you have to decide what benefits it the most. Trust your instincts and you’ll be fine.