Tips and Hacks, Writing Tips

Dear Anne #8 – Words Are Your Trade

Dear Anne,

I realized this week that it has been a month since I’ve written, and for that I want to apologize. I’m sure you understand how crazy summer can be sometimes, even though it’s supposed to be “vacation” time. Ha!

Right now you’re starting back to high school and you’re getting ready for your Sweet 16 party. How did this happen? You make me feel old. Maybe I am. But I won’t admit it for another two years.

As you’re getting back into daily social interactions with your teenage friends, I wanted to write this letter to remind you of something very important. If you’re going to be a writer, you must embrace the fact that words are your trade. You are to become an expert at the manipulation and proper construction of words and sentences.

Have you been watching the Olympics? I have. I’m struck with this one simple fact: when an athlete keys in on who they are as an athlete, they train insanely in their chosen discipline. The announcers revealed that rhythmic gymnasts train ten hours a day, six days a week. Katie Ledecky gets up at 4am to begin her training day, putting in about eight and a half miles of swimming. Every. Day.

These athletes have embraced that thing that makes them an athlete, so they train at that thing excessively.

Words are what make you a writer. They are your tools, your friends, and sometimes your worst enemies. But without words you could never be a writer. You should thrive on words, exercise your words, train your words, and embrace words in all their complexity and mood swings. Because words are your trade.

You are an athlete of words.

darth grammarWhat does that mean? Listen to the way you speak, listen to the way others speak, and improve your words. Practice saying things the right way, rather than flippant teen-speech. When texting or posting on Facebook, write your words all the way instead of abbreviations. Vulgarity in speech could never compare to the power of a cleverly crafted comeback.

Also, listen to your English teacher intently. Absorb all you can about the construction of words into complex sentences. Understand how words interact with each other and how subtle meanings can change based on the nuances of grammatical structure. You don’t have to make English your favorite subject, but you should take it seriously.

Expand your vocabulary. Always look for new words to add to your arsenal. Make a thesaurus your best friend. But don’t just add more weapons, understand how they work and when to use them. Words are powerful and fun, but not all words are appropriate in every situation. Learn what words to use and when.

I’m not saying you have to be a perfect speller. I’m not. But I’ve trained myself over the years and I’m better than most people whose words are not their trade. I’m not saying become a grammar nazi. I’m not. But I’ve trained myself over the years and I’m better than most people whose words are not their trade.

Words are your trade. Learn words. Embrace words. Use words properly. Become an expert with words. Train with words as if you were training for an Olympics for word-smiths.

And if I see lol or jk or idk or anything like that in any of your stories, I may just crawl through the computer, forget the fact that you’re about to be sixteen, and make you stand in the corner until you apologize.

Respect words.

-odk

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Tips and Hacks, Writing Tips

Dear Anne #3 -Types of Projects

Dear Anne,

By now you should already be writing. You’ll never be a writer if you never write! In your case, Anne, I know you’re already busy working on your first real project. I’ve been reading and nudging you in a few areas, and I’ve already begun to see some growth. Keep it up!

But because you’re already writing, I wanted to take this letter and go over some of the different projects you may choose to do. Being a writer is a very broad term that covers many different writing disciplines. I happen to be in a somewhat unique position, in that I’ve dabbled in most of them…even the non-fiction ones. If you want to try your hand at non-fiction (things like magazine or newspaper articles, how-to blogs, academic papers, etc.), know that those things are a completely different animal than fiction disciplines. I can teach you some of that too, but it’ll be different rules and approaches to things. Just let me know, and I’ll write a letter on those things, too.

For now, I’ll just stick to fiction. The types of creative fiction you might choose to write are, in order of length: epic/series, novel, novella, short story, and flash fiction. There’s also poetry and screen-writing. Poetry I’ve done, though I’m bad at it; screen-writing I haven’t done, though I’d like to try it one day. I have a friends who do both, so if you want more info, I can get it.

I want to talk about the novel first. A novel is a lengthy work, typically between 40,000 and 200,000 words. It is a complete story, with a definitive beginning, middle, and end. It fully develops its main characters, settings, and major events, with a climax just before the end. I’ll talk about all of those different things in later letters, but I list them now because some of the other projects don’t always need all of those things.

Some authors can write more than one novel in a year. Those that do are very prolific at what they do. Most novelists do good to complete one in a year. A novel is a major commitment that takes a lot more time than you think. Many aspiring writers want to start with the novel, and they quickly get so bogged down in the overwhelming task of finishing it that they quit writing.

And speaking of being overwhelmed…those same aspiring writers often have grand ideas of a huge saga or series. These are multiple novels, in some ways self-contained with all the elements I listed for the novel, but they also span over huge story arcs between several books. That’s why I cut the novel off at 200k, because anything larger than that many publishers and editors would recommend splitting into multiple books. Sure, some single novels are that big or bigger. I’ll define those large single volume stories, that probably should be divided as a saga, as an epic. The saga is a multiple volume story, that follows a unified plot. A series is simply stand alone novels (or novellas) that use a recurring set of characters, settings, and/or themes. Got it?

My “novel” that I worked on in high school was supposed to be a three book saga. After college I wrote a stand-alone novel that was the prequel to that trilogy. (Your dad has read it.) But I still haven’t gone back to try that trilogy again…because it’s a huge overwhelming story that I still don’t feel ready to tackle yet.

It would probably do good for you to choose smaller projects for now. Save your grand novel, series, saga, or epic idea for later in your career. You’ll be glad you did.

A novella is simply a short novel. It follows pretty much the same rules as a novel, but on a smaller scale. A novella might range between 8k and 40k words in length. Within that, you could even break it down again, with another category called a novelette, which is even smaller than a novella. To be more specific, some literary awards define a novelette as a work between 7.5k and 18k words, and a novella between 18k and 40k words. Other awards don’t distinguish the two at all. It’s kind of arbitrary, which is why I gave you a general 8k to 40k. So if it’s between 8k and 20k, call it a novelette. If it’s between 20k and 40k, call it a novella. If it’s over 40k, then it’s a novel.

This brings us to the short story. If you’re paying attention, you saw that some works as small as 7.5k can be classified as a novelette. That’s a really small novelette. I’ve read short stories longer than that. In fact, some people just refer to novelettes as long short stories. A short story is usually between 1k and 8k (novelette size), though a short story can get longer in some cases. But at some point you just have to give up on it being a “short story” and just call it what it is…a novelette.

So what’s the difference? I’m not sure there is one, really, but in my mind I like to think of it like this. A novelette has all of the foundational elements of a novel: character development, setting, story development, tension, climax, resolution, etc; just on a smaller scale than a novel. But a short story doesn’t need all of that.

A short story is a specific scene in the life of your character. It’s a snapshot…a moment in time captured on paper. The reader doesn’t need all the exposition details you’d put in a novel…just the important ones to the story. The story doesn’t need as much development, because you’re really only developing one scene and one major character. Short stories tend to focus on emotions or morality rather than fully developing a plot.

I’ve written short stories, but I’m bad at them. I like detail too much and I write on much larger scales to ever be good at short stories. But I have a friend who is a very active short story writer, so if you want some more on that I can get her to write a letter for you.

Finally, there’s flash fiction. Flash fiction is what you call anything less than 1,000 words. At this size, you can’t help but take small snap-shots of what’s happening, and you have to be very clever to get the dramatic elements you need to keep it interesting. Flash fiction can be broken down into other categories, such as: micro-fiction (300 words or less) and nano-fiction (50 words or less). Of course, the smaller the word count, the less details you get to write, and the more clever you have to be to weave a complete story. Try writing a complete story in 50 words or less! It may not be as easy as you think!

Before I end the letter, I want to tell you about two things you might try. First, there’s a thing called fan-fic or fan-fiction. Basically you take the characters and settings of your favorite things and you write your own stories with them. It’s fun and there are entire communities online out there where fan-fic writers get together and share their stuff. You could write a Doctor Who fan-fic, where the Doctor shows up at Hogwarts and takes Dobby to his home planet (because house elves are really aliens). There are no rules on what you can do with fan-fiction! Just have fun! Well…there is one rule. You can’t publish them. 😦 (Although, there have been cases where fan-fiction was so popular that a publisher changed all the details and published it as an original story. Fifty Shades of Gray was originally fan-fic of Twilight. How sick is that?)

Second, there’s this thing called NaNoWriMo…that’s National Novel Writing Month. It happens in November, when writers all over the world, professional and amateur alike, commit to writing a complete 50,000 word novel during the 30 days of November. You can go to the website and officially register to participate (it’s free) and log your progress along with writers all over the world. Or just unofficially declare your participation. I’ve done the unofficial thing (as a way to try to get motivated to finish the book I was working on) but I never completed the month out. I’ve never won NaNoWriMo. To win all you have to do is finish your 50k word novel and you get to claim yourself a winner. It might be a fun thing for you to try…but it’s a lot of work and it takes a lot of pre-planning before November even gets here.

So there you have it! All kinds of exciting projects for you to try. Let me give you a quick breakdown of them. Remember, the wordcounts are only guides…there’s no definite rule…and some writers may even disagree with me on these definitions. But you’ll probably know what it is you’re trying to write, even if it doesn’t always fit into these wordcounts.

  • Epic – A fully developed stand-alone work 200k+ words.
  • Novel – A fully developed stand-alone work 40k-200k words.
  • Series – Multiple stand-alone novels that use the same characters, settings, and/or themes, that don’t necessarily depend on one another and usually tell separate stories.
  • Saga – Multiple novels with the same characters, settings, and/or themes, that depend on one another for a continuing story.
  • Novella – A fully developed stand-alone work 20k-40k words.
  • Novellete – A fully developed stand-alone work 8k-20k words.
  • Short Story – A developed “scene” 1k-8k words.
  • Flash Fiction – A developed “scene” 1k words or less.
  • Micro Fiction – A “scene” 300 words or less.
  • Nano Fiction – A “scene” 50 words or less.

Good luck and go write something!
-odk

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My writing journey, Tips and Hacks, Writing Tips

Story Building Mastery 10 – Advanced Complexities

Advanced Complexities

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo, you’ve made it this far, huh? You’ve taken all the basics of story building (The Tri-Core Substructure, the Five Act Structure, Genre, Genotype, Character Development), you’ve carefully designed your story (Five Stage Plot, The Hero’s Journey, Micro Stories, Episodic Reduction), but that’s not enough for you. You want some tricks and tools to make your story unique…to make it stand out. Most importantly, you don’t really want your reader to figure out what you’re up to. You want to grab the reader by the nose, lead them through your complex, masterful, story weaving, and deliver a climax that will leave them breathless. You want your story to be unforgettable.

Welcome to the club.

Here are a few common tricks and tools you can use to twist your story exactly the way you want. You’ve probably thought of a few of these things, but for the best effect you should make sure they are implemented properly. Each item has some peculiarities you should remember, otherwise your efforts may fall flat or go unnoticed by the reader.

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My writing journey, Tips and Hacks, Writing Tips

Story Building Mastery 8 – Micro Stories

Micro Stories

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What is a micro story? It’s a story within the story. This is more common with epics than it is with smaller, self-contained stories, but can still be used effectively when done right. The first and most important point in considering putting this into your story, is that micro stories must always work for the greater story. That is why this is so high up on the complexity list, because the foundational story must be firmly established. Each micro story should reflect or add to the foundational story, otherwise it just becomes a spin-off (self-contained unrelated stories grown out of the original). You don’t want spin-off stories, because they detract and distract from the point of the foundational story. Let micro stories work together to create a weaved tale with one common end goal.

There are two major types of micro stories. POV stories and story-arcs. Some writers may equivicate the two into one definition, preferring to call them all “story-arcs.” But I think there’s an important distinction to be made.

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My writing journey

Using a "Straw man" plot in fiction. What's your opinion?

I posted a status about this on Facebook yesterday, but I didn’t get the kind of response I was hoping for. So here’s my attempt at a larger audience…and an opportunity to explain myself better.

I want to know what you feel about the use of a “Straw man” plot in fiction. If you’re unsure of what I’m talking about, I’ll explain. I’m not sure if this technique has an official term in literary circles…but “Straw man” is what I’m calling it. The term comes from the informal logical fallacy of the same name. Wikipedia describes the “Straw man” fallacy as:

“a component of an argument and is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. To “attack a straw man” is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by substituting it with a superficially similar yet unequivalent proposition (the “straw man”), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.”

How am I applying this to fiction? A “Straw man” plot is a fake plot used in the exposition to mislead the reader. When the real plot comes into play, the fake plot is completely discarded as irrelevant. A “Straw man” plot usually ends with a “WHAT THE!” moment, blowing the reader’s mind and perception of what’s happening, and skews the story in a totally unexpected direction. The “Straw man” plot is never mentioned again. This is not the same as having sub-plots or plot-twists. Sub-plots continue on, and usually have some significance to the overall story. A plot-twist is an unexpected change to the current plot. A “Straw man” plot is fake, insignificant, and tossed aside in favor of more important things.

I haven’t been able to think of any books or movies that have pulled this off. Please let me know if you can think of any, because I’d like some examples. But one of the best examples I can think of comes from The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess video game for Wii. At the beginning of this game, Link is asked to deliver a special sword to Hyrule Castle. He goes through a few rudimentary training exercises, and a short adventure in preparation of this journey. And just before he leaves…a black portal opens up in the sky, everything is thrust into a dark twilight-dimension, and Link turns into a wolf. WHAT THE! Forget delivering the stupid sword to the castle. The world now has bigger problems. This “Straw man” plot is never mentioned again. In fact, the only connection to it is that Link later goes back to his home village and steals that sword so he’ll have something to beat up monsters with.

So what do you think of using the “Straw man” plot? Does it work for you or not? Can you think of a movie or book examples that have succeeded using it? Can you think of movie or book examples that have bombed using it? And would you consider using this in one of your own books? What’s your opinion?

-odk