At the New Yorker Book Bench Macy Halford recently posed an important question: “What is wanting to write without wanting to read like? It’s imperative that we figure it out, because Giraldi’s right: It’s both crazy and prevalent among budding writers.” She was echoing a question asked by debut novelist William Giraldi who in the course of teaching writing at Boston University has noticed a growing number of aspiring writers disinclined to read. This unfortunate trend inspired an open-ended analogy:
Wanting to write without wanting to read is like wanting to ____ without wanting to ____.
The New Yorker commenterati — unsurprisingly, a clever bunch — came up with some great analogies but none of them touched on the bigger question: How can anyone claim to be interested in writing without being serious about reading? If Giraldi’s observation rings true across teenagers and 20-somethings then what does this say about culture at large?
Read more at Salon.com.
Those of you who have been following my blog for a while may have noticed by now that my writing comes and goes. (Yay, adult life). Recently I’ve started a new endeavor to not only get myself writing but to get myself back into the groove of some old (and some not so old) stories that I do at some point want to finish. And to do that, I’ve devised a sort of game.
I have composed a list of the 15 books/series I still would like to finish some day, each with a list of the most important main and side characters. Using a random number generator, I select first the series, then the character, then the age of the character, then the genre of the short story, and then the length, which ranges from 100-500 words. I think it’s really helping me get a good grasp on the characters, and should make the stories go smoother as I write them.
That being said, here’s the first one I’ve done. The story this is from is called Chain Master, a fantasy story in which the main character has the power to move between interconnected dimensions, known as the Enigami Chain, and kill a specific type of magic monster known as a morgrim. (More on that later, tho).
This short story is based when the main character, Eva, is a young teen (probably about 15), back before she left her birth dimension, Earth, and before she discovered her magic powers.
“Look there! On a lonely hillside stands the ruins of an ancient city, where monsters slumber, guarding vast amounts of treasure!”
Quickly I darted behind a brick wall, my makeshift sword clasped firmly in my hands. The rough surface of the bricks behind me pressed into my back, catching on the fabric of the long shirt I wore and scraping against the leather belt fastened around my middle.
I drew in a deep breath then, taking in the scents and sounds of the world around me, of grass, and trees, and animals. A bird chirped from its perch on a nearby tree branch, cocking its little head at me, as though wondering what I was doing. It seemed oblivious to the danger that rested so close at hand. I raised a cautious finger to my lips, trying to silence the little creature before me, if not for my sake than for its own. The movement seemed to startle the bird, however, and quickly it flew off into the distant horizon.
“Well, I will not be startled so,” I declared under my breath, tightening my grip on my weapon of choice before glancing around the corner of the wall behind which I hid.
I took in one more breath before stealthily slipping out from my hiding spot and behind a nearby bush.
Slowly, quietly I edged my way forward, my eyes always focused on the unsuspecting target before me. Then at last, when I had finally come within range of my goal, I darted out into the open, pointing my makeshift sword at the creature before me.
“Your days of villainy and gluttony are at an end, foul monster!” I declared, brandishing my weapon for emphasis. “I will retake these ruins for the residents of this fair land!”
A pair of languid green-gold eyes turned toward me then, clearly unconcerned.
I sighed at the response, then lowered the stick in my hand.
“You were supposed to at least jump a little.”
The creature before me, an orange-furred tabby cat, twitched its ears unconcernedly before returning to grooming itself.
“Very well,” I said, returning to my earlier charade before raising my makeshift sword again. “If you will not surrender, then I must drive you from this land by force!”
No sooner had I said this, however, then the sound of my mother’s voice caught my ear.
“Eva Darlene Claine!”
Uh-oh. Full-name alert. Death was imminent.
“You’re a decade too old for that make-believe nonsense!” my mother continued. “Now get your hide in here and finish your homework!”
I let out a dramatic sigh before reluctantly dropping my stick.
“So long, sweet freedom.”
I paused one more time to look at the cat who was now eyeing me closely.
“Well,” I added then, grinning broadly as I scooped the little creature up in my arms, eliciting a squeak of protest in the process. “If I have to go to the dungeon, I’m taking you with me.”
November 1 is finally upon us, and with it marks my 5th year participating in NaNoWriMo. Last year, I went big and bold with a brand new (and highly ambitious) project called Infinite, which I would still say was a success despite not getting anywhere near that 50,000 word mark.
This year, though, I’ve decided to scale back my ambitions a bit. Between grad school and a host of volunteer activities (not to mention work), I just don’t foresee myself getting very far if I try to build something from scratch. Thus, I decided that this year I would focus on shooting for 50,000 words of an in-progress work instead. (I mean, 50,000 words isn’t even half of what I’ve been producing in recent years).
I had several options to choose from this year, but after a careful consideration of the structure I already have in place for each story, I finally settled on the rewrite of book 2 of the Star Trilogy, The Secret of Erris. I think it will offer a good combination of challenge and ease, considering that the world is already mostly built but the changes in the first book have made the original plot nearly obsolete.
That being said, here is a little about my 2016 NaNo project.
A year has passed since the defeat of the Gauls at Altis Pass, and all of Livania has come together in the elvin citadel of Rinba to celebrate that victory. With the celebration, however, comes some shocking news: Cael, one of the original four Stars and Gavin’s father, may still be alive, trapped somewhere in the heart of Erris, a deserted, monster-infested swampland to the south of Livania.
Teaming up with the forest elf prince, Shea, the Ardenian princess, Lina, and Razi’s father, Delwynn, the four young Stars set out on a mission to save the missing hero. What they don’t know, however, is that Erris is not merely a deserted swamp. And as they search for clues to Cael’s whereabouts, they discover that they are not alone in this region, either.
A dancing fire crackled in the fireplace of an immense library, its lively flames casting a warm glow against the white marble hearth. The light of the blaze sent flickering shadows across tall bookshelves – all filled to the brim with a wide array of ancient volumes and scrolls – that stretched out along the length of the expansive room. Ancient tapestries hung from the dark stone walls that encompassed the room, their gold-thread tassels dangling above statues wrought of various metals, set with precious stones, and covered with a fine layer of dust. To one side of the white marble hearth stood an ornate bronze desk, its polished surface glinting in the firelight, and on the opposite side sat a plush red silk armchair trimmed in gold thread.
And there, settled down in the armchair, was Radek, his long golden hair pulled back in an ornate metal clasp as he bent his head forward, his bright blue eyes scanning the worn, stained pages of a stack of papers that had been recovered from the Battle of Altis Pass roughly one year earlier.
A sigh escaped the mountain elf’s lips, and briefly he closed his eyes, rubbing the tension out of them. He had lost track of the hours he had spent here in his library, sifting through the massive collection of material he had acquired over the thousands of years that he had been alive. Some of the tomes were new, written even within the last century, while others were ancient, their ages unknown even to him. These he had inherited from his father, who had inherited them from his own father before that. At one point in time, Radek had found the tomes to be mere entertainment. Now, though, he thought of them in a much different light.
The papers that had been recovered from the Gauls at Altis Pass were strange, written in ancient elvish but in a manner that was highly unfamiliar even to Radek. At first, the documents had been left to the Livanians, but when the code proved too difficult even for Delwynn, who had served under King Ceallach, Radek had taken it upon himself to sort out the mystery.
How long had it been since he had first started this project? Two months? Three? He couldn’t remember. And so far, he had managed to understand very little of it.
That the documents all pertained to Harzia was no surprise to Radek. After all, Harzia was where the Star Spell was located. It stood to reason, then, that it would also be a place of interest to the Gauls, who had been hunting the Star power since the dawn of the mountain kingdom. What didn’t make sense to him, however, were the constant references to words and names that even Radek himself had never heard of. Sometimes, the writing was poetic; other times, it seemed to be little more than gibberish. Most likely, Radek supposed, it was some sort of code system, possibly intermixed with the Gaulian dialect. He was surprised that any of the Gauls would know ancient elvish, but he wouldn’t put it past them, he supposed, considering their long history with Harzia. Now if only he could get into their minds long enough to understand the meaning behind the words. Just that long, though. Frankly, he had no desire to get into their minds beyond that.
Quietly Radek reached down to the papers resting in his lap, flipping one over to examine the next page. Oh well. Since mind-reading was out of the question, he would just have to continue doing things the usual way instead.
He was just getting to the end of the page when, suddenly, his eyes landed on a particular passage. There was a message here, one that actually seemed to make some measure of sense, and in it was a reference to an ancient elvin book.
“Strange,” Radek muttered to himself, standing and making his way toward the back of the library. “How would a Gaul know of this book?”
His sharp blue eyes scanned the bound volumes that sat on the aged shelves. To a visitor, finding anything in this library would probably appear all but impossible. But to Radek, it was simple. Very little had changed about it in the past thousand years, and he had read everything in his collection at least once.
At last he found what he was looking for, drew the book off the shelf, and returned to his seat. He laid the tome on his lap and stared at the title for a short time. It was a large book, possibly containing a thousand pages or more, and obviously old. The leather cover was cracked, the pages stiff and yellowed with age. Every now and again one could see an insert tucked in between the pages, each containing hand-sketched images of monsters, heroes, temples, and all manner of mysteries and glories of days long since past.
Radek’s eyes narrowed slightly as he stared down at the ancient text. He hadn’t read this book since he was a boy. How long had it been? 2000 years, perhaps?
Quietly he flipped to the title page of the book, running his fingers over the faded ink scrawled in delicate writing from top to bottom. Then, almost in reverent awe, he muttered aloud, “Legends of Erris.”
I’ve already got a total of about 3,000 words from previous work on this manuscript, so I won’t be starting directly at the beginning. Still, this year’s NaNoWriMo might give me the push I need to sort through all those plot and character changes and get this series rolling again. And to all of you who are planning on participating this year as well, I wish you all the best.
“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”
― Louis L’Amour
Four days until NaNoWriMo starts, and I’m not sure yet if I’m excited or intimidated.
I was introduced to NaNoWriMo back in 2010, but I didn’t start participating until the following year. To date, I have yet to complete the 50,000 word goal. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing, though. As of this moment, my “Writings” file on my computer takes up just under 1.3 GB of space and contains 893 files. Of course, some of those files are cover art and some are plot/character/world notes, but I’d still say the writing takes up a notable portion of that number. Of the things I’ve actually tallied, I’ve written roughly 680,000 words since 2006. (And that doesn’t include the blogs, outlines, world lore, hand-written stories, and research papers that I’ve written over the years). And on top of that, I have a list of “want-to-finish” books that literally, if I were to finish one every 12 months (completely not realistic for the severely ADD me), I would still be 61 years old by the time I finished writing the last one. (And that would be dependent on a guarantee I wouldn’t come up with any other stories during that length of time).
As I’ve been mulling over this information, along with the thought of starting a brand new project when I already have three big ones I haven’t finished yet, the question came to me: When does a writer decide that they have told their last story?
I’ve heard it said that a writer is merely a person who has a story to tell. And though I definitely feel like I have stories to tell, I haven’t really been coming up with anything new recently. Maybe this isn’t a big deal to most people, but it’s a strange feeling to me, the person who, even just a few years, would tell a family member or friend, “Guess what,” and would immediately get the response, “You came up with a new story.”
It’s made me wonder, do writers run out of stories? Or is it merely because I have an overload of story ideas right now that I’m just too overwhelmed to come up with something new?
I don’t really have an answer, but I wonder if I’m the only one who has ever pondered this, or if it’s a more common question than I realized.
On the upside, there have been several highly successful authors who published their major works after the age of 40, so maybe this dry spell is just a chance for me to catch up and weed out all the ideas that would just fall flat on their faces. And in the meantime, I’ll probably use NaNoWriMo as a chance to propel those projects forward.
Currently listening to “Before Time” by Thomas Bergersen.
OK, it’s official. I simply cannot keep up with the post-per-day thing. (Probably because I can’t seem to comprehend how I could possibly write a post in only 300 words). On the upside, that little experiment has gotten me back in the writing spirit (I wrote just under 3,000 words on one of my stories yesterday). But since I’m here to give everyone a status update, I thought I might as well talk about something useful while I’m at it. And that something useful is: dialogue.
Description and plot are often hailed as the most important elements of any story, and I would be remiss to say they aren’t critical aspects of writing a successful book, but one element of story and character development that often gets forgotten about is good, old-fashioned talking.
A lot of people I have met get intimidated by dialogue, and for good reason. It is not just an important part of any story, but a vital one, and can too easily go wrong with a simple misplaced phrase. Some readers are rather forgiving about limited or over-done description. They are not always so quick to forgive stilted, awkward, or cliche verbal interaction. This, however, tends to lead people to take the minimalistic approach or avoid dialogue all-together, leaving the reader with a story that is only partially developed and highly unrealistic. (Unless we’re talking about a certain group of teenagers I know who sit side-by-side on a bench and text/Snap Chat each other for hours on end without so much as a spoken word between them).
I am far from what I would consider a “Master of Dialogue,” but I do enjoy it and use it regularly in my work. For me, dialogue gives me one of the best chances I’ll ever get at making my characters real to my readers, not to mention offering a perfect method for clarifying events (within reason) and propelling the plot forward. It is also where most of my comic relief takes place. For instance, here’s a scene from one of my Skyrim fanfictions, Dovahsil.
The innkeeper, Hulda, slid a mug of mead across the counter as Marcurio plopped in a stool, and she flashed him a playful smile when she caught the look of surprise he gave her.
“It’s been a while, Marcurio,” the woman grinned, picking up a rag and rubbing down the counter.
“You remember me?” the mage grinned back, grabbing up the mug and taking a swig. “And you missed me so much that you even gave me a mug of free mead. I’m touched.”
“Oh, that mug isn’t free,” Hulda chuckled, almost menacingly, Marcurio thought. “And of course I remember you,” the innkeeper continued. “You still have a tab.”
A series of coughing and sputtering ensued as Marcurio choked on the mouthful of mead he had almost managed to swallow.
“But it’s been nearly 4 years, Hulda,” the mage protested, setting the mug on the counter and leaning forward, slapping a charming smirk on his face for good effect. “Those were hard times. Can’t we let the past be the past?”
“The past can be the past,” the innkeeper replied nonchalantly. “But last I checked, your tab was still valid today, which means that technically it can’t be considered ‘the past.’”
“Alright, then. Out of the kindness of your heart?”
“If I ran a business like that, I wouldn’t have a business to run.”
“You know you want to.”
“You know I’ll make you scrub every privy in town if you don’t stop.”
Marcurio recoiled at the suggestion.
“I’ll stop begging,” he squeaked, adjusting the collar of his robe as though it had suddenly become very tight.
“That’s what I thought.”
At that, the man sighed, reaching into his satchel and placing a bag full of coins on the counter.
“There’s 300 here,” he said, sliding it toward Hulda.
The woman’s jaw dropped slightly. Cautiously she reached out, picking up the bag of money and glancing suspiciously inside.
“Just let me know how much more I owe you,” Marcurio continued. “This one included.”
He held up his current mug with a quirky grin.
“This will be enough,” Hulda replied, tucking the bag securely away behind the counter. Then she swatted the mage with her rag.
“You had the money and yet you were trying to weasel out of your debt. You’re such a bum.”
“I prefer business-minded, myself.”
“Cheap-scape sounds more appropriate to me.”
“Oh! You wound me with your words.”
“You’ll make a full recovery, I am sure.”
Recently I read a post called “9 Easily Preventable Mistakes Writers Make with Dialogue.” As the title suggests, in this article, the author explores some of the most common mistakes a writer (both professional or otherwise) can make when writing dialogue, and I find that I am (or previously have been) guilty of the large majority of them.
The first two problems presented in the article are “too formal” and “too casual” dialogue. There is a very delicate balance between the formal and casual methods of speech, and using either one to excess or not enough can make any story into a difficult read. Remember, we’re not trying to reinvent Hamlet or Tom Sawyer here.
For me, I tend to use a mixture of formal and casual speech with my characters. For instance, here is a section of dialogue from my book The Four Stars:
“We really do need to continue on,” Gavin said, turning to look at his companions. “Remember that we aren’t actually here to explore. King Dorrian and Lord Rolf need us. We’ve found the end of the path and solved all its puzzles. It would be selfish to ask for more.”
Rayne glanced at the boy with a disappointed pout, then sighed and nodded.
“You’re right,” she said, sheathing her swords. “I had almost forgotten about that little issue.”
“Issue?” Radek inquired, raising a curious eyebrow at the group.
Razi nodded as she sheathed her own sword.
“The Gauls,” the redhead replied. “They’ve invaded the mountains and have our kingdom’s armies cornered in Altis Pass. A messenger came and said that we were being summoned to join the battle, but that we should take the Old Road instead of the pass. That’s how we ended up here.”
“The Gauls are here in the mountains?” Radek inquired, looking up at Nantlais.
“Hmm…yes…” the giant mused. “The Black Banners, the Gauls, as you call them, have sent many scouts through here over the years, so I thought little of it when I received the report that the number of scouts had recently increased. Our duty has never been to guard the pass, though, so I did not know that there was an army of them there.”
In the case of my Legend of the Stars series, I use formal and informal speech to indicate the status and language of the character. Razi, Rayne, Eryn, and Gavin are somewhat educated, but they are also young orphans who haven’t had much interaction with the world outside of their home. As such, they use more contractions in their speech, along with things like “I dunno” and “Okay.” On the other hand, characters like Radek and Nantlais, who have also lived for many years in an isolated community and whose native language is Ancient Elvish rather than Trade Speech, use more formal language, often opting for sentences that have no contractions in them. This is also reflected in places where characters are speaking specifically in one form or another of Elvish, as the idea behind the language is that there are no possessives or contractions (thus, no need for apostrophes in general). This whole system of dialogue, though, is something new to the rewrite of the series, as the original books contained speech that was downright awkward in places thanks to the excessive formality or informality of the language.
I will admit, I have tried the “too realistic” part of this spectrum before on more than one occasion. When I was in high school, there was a website called Worth1000 that regularly held creative contests. Every contest started with some sort of prompt or theme, and the goal was to create something interesting enough that it would garner enough votes to win on-site tokens.
One such contest that I participated in featured a prompt in which the participants were to write a story surrounding an unusual use of money won in a giveaway. (I no longer remember the exact prompt, though). The story I created, titled “Calling Ma,” featured an eccentric old man and a curious young neighbor boy, and the dialogue went like this:
“Um…what are you doing?” Gage repeated, though this time he was slightly more hesitant.
“I’m making a galactic telephone, see?” the old man replied, patting the giant hunk of metal fondly, causing a piece of hot-glued aluminum to clatter to the ground and a length of copper wire to pop into view. “Those generous fellas in the black car gave me all the money I needed to do the job.”
He was referring to the million dollar give-away that had taken place a few days before.
“What is it supposed to do?”
“What’s it s’posed ta do, he says!” Mr. Goodrich laughed, wriggling out from under his invention and bounding to his oversized feet. “Why, ta call me ma, that’s what!”
“Call your what?”
“Me ma. Ye know, what some people call d’eir mother,” he replied, being sure to stress the “o” in “mother”.
Writing quality aside, what really turned the readers off of this story was the dialogue of Mr. Goodrich (which is significantly cleaned up in the version I’ve posted here, as I did some editing after the competition had ended). And looking back on it, I can see why. Every other word was a misspelling or included an apostrophe, forcing the reader to spend so much time trying to understand what the characters were saying that they couldn’t focus on the rest of the story.
Next on the list was “Obtrusive Dialogue Tags.” And I’ll be the first person to claim, “Guilty as charged.”
To be honest, I have never understood the problem with this one. When I was in college, my mentor, Dr. Robinson, hounded me about this, and I have been accused of being downright “allergic” to the word “said.” (You might notice there’s not one “he said” in the section from “Calling Ma”).
I think some readers take more issue with the dialogue tags than I do, and I would wager that it comes down more to style than to actual writing rules. (After all, this sort of dialogue is present in several of my favorite books, all traditionally published). To me, they aren’t a detractor, and actually help me to envision vocal tone and physical action better than a simple “he said.”
Then there’s phonetic spellings, (I sort of addressed this in the “casual dialogue” section), followed by using characters’ names too often.
I am fairly certain that I don’t use characters’ names too often in the actual speech section. Most of my characters are rather familiar with each other, thus making the use of direct address unnecessary. If anything, I’d say I used names most frequently in my earlier work, probably because of a fear that the reader wouldn’t know who was talking or being talked to. The exception to this that I can think of would be in The Four Stars, when King Ceallach regularly adds the name “Cloony” in his sentences directed at that character. But then, considering the fact that King Ceallach is, in fact, purposefully mocking the character and his name, the overuse makes sense.
Number 6 is “Having No Narrative,” and I would say it’s something I had more trouble with in my early writings than I do now, all thanks to Dr. Robinson, of course. I often write stories containing at least one character who has some sort of secret (often more than one character, but that’s beside the point), and somewhere during the plot, the truth is revealed in the form of a confession of sorts. There are also multiple instances in my books where characters read aloud from documents or books so that all the other characters involved can hear the truth or information at one time. When I first started writing, there were times when this could turn into several pages of strict dialogue/story-telling. When I went to college and took Narrative Writing from Dr. Robinson, however, he was quick to point out how monotonous this sort of writing can be and suggested that I include interjections and action into the mix to remind the reader that there are other characters (and events) present. Here’s an example from my retro fantasy novel, Prism World:
“But even with their powers, they were no match for our guns and our armies,” he read aloud. “The Mythikans, who call themselves the Nalivai, fought bitterly, but they were many tribes of many different minds. Not even those great mages could withstand our power. Little by little, we crushed out their villages, killing their men and women and capturing their children. Admittedly, they were frightening opponents with an ability to kill the like of which I have never before seen. Though they learned all too late how to defeat our armies, we saw in them a potential far greater than that found in a common soldier. In body and in mind they were human, but in power they were something else entirely.”
I glanced down at my scarred left hand as Leif read those words. So…even the masters said that, to some extent at least, Phantoms were human. But if we were human, why did they…? Leif continued to read and I turned my attention back to the book in his hand.
“Our last battle was fought at the foot of the Sajaro Mountains. Their army was small and weak, but their leaders were the most powerful of the Mythikans left alive. Elithe and Feron were their names, and I remember them well for they were the most noble and most courageous of all beings I had ever crossed paths with and, I dare say, ever will. Wielding the powers of lightning and of fire, they scorched the mountain with fervent passion, shaming our generals and standing at the very front of their army, prepared to defy us until their very last breaths…
The last three points in the list were “Having Every Character Sound the Same,” “Using Indirect Speech Poorly,” and “Spelling Everything Out in the Narrative.”
I’m gonna have to defer to my readers on that first one. Most people tell me that my characters are all pretty unique, though I’m sure I could do better.
As for indirect speech, I actually have become rather fond of it, considering the fact that if I spelled out every single conversation, I would need a whole library just to accommodate one story. I think the key here is to summarize the unimportant conversations and expand the ones that really affect character and plot development.
And then, of course, there’s that last one. Of these final three points, I would say the “Spelling Everything Out in the Narrative” is one of my greater weaknesses, and it goes back to something Dr. Robinson pointed out time and again both in my writing classes and in our writing club, the Rough Writers: show, don’t tell. One thing I have learned over time is that readers typically prefer to be able to see what is going on and make conclusions for themselves. Give them too little, and they’ll be confused and frustrated. Give them too much, however, and they’ll feel like you’re demeaning their intelligence.
Ultimately, dialogue is an art that has to be honed over time, but it isn’t something that any narrative writer should neglect or fear. Also, spending time actually listening to real life conversations and carefully considering the structure and words used will go a long way toward helping you become more familiar and comfortable with it.
I am interested to see what other people think about these points as well, and that includes readers as much as (and probably more than) writers. Are these all things that you notice when you’re reading/writing? Are they things that annoy you? Why or why not?
Anyway, thanks for reading, and I hope to hear from you soon. Cheers!