Writers, Have You Rocked The Vault?

There’s nothing better than becoming lost within the story world within minutes of starting a book. And as writers, this is what we’re striving to do: pull the reader in, pull them down deep into the words, make them feel like they are experiencing the story right alongside the hero or heroine.

A big part of achieving this is showing the character’s surroundings in a way that is textured and rich, delivering this description through a filter of emotion and mood. It means we have to be careful with each word we choose, and describe the setting in such a way that each sight, sound, taste, texture, and smell comes alive for readers. This is no easy task, especially since it is so easy to overdo it—killing the pace, slowing the action, and worst of all, boring the reader. So how can we create a true unique experience for readers and make them feel part of the action while avoiding descriptive missteps that will hurt the story?

writershelpingwriters_logo_300x300px_finalWell, there’s some good news on this front. Two new books have released this week that may change the description game for writers. The Urban Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to City Spaces and The Rural Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Personal and Natural Spaces look at the sights, smells, tastes, textures, and sounds that a character might experience within 225 different contemporary settings. And this is only the start of what these books offer writers.

In fact, swing by and check out this hidden entry from the Urban Setting Thesaurus:Antiques Shop.

And there’s one more thing you might want to know more about….

Rock_The_Vault_WHW1Becca and Angela, authors of The Emotion Thesaurus, are celebrating their double release with a fun event going on from June 13-20th called ROCK THE VAULT. At the heart of Writers Helping Writers is a tremendous vault, and these two ladies have been hoarding prizes of epic writerly proportions.

A safe full of prizes, ripe for the taking…if the writing community can work together to unlock it, of course.

Ready to do your part? Stop by Writers Helping Writers to find out more!

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Remembering his story that he never told

There are so many little things that enrich your life, being a writer. Often, writers are asked where they get their ideas. For fiction writing there are two aspects to seperate: ideas and memories.

Let’s talk about memories.

So some day when you were eleven years old, you went to walk your puppy in the orchard. While your puppy is sniffing out the best areas to leave his markings, you stand under an apple tree and wait. That is, until one of the apples falls on your head and you scream ouch! Your puppy looks up. Startled by your shout, he urinates on the spot, probably not happy to have missed the perfect marking-spot.

You can work with that, right? You can begin to think of some story related to your brief experience when you were a kid. Maybe your puppy’s pee ignites some magic in the area he figured was just so wrong to pee in. And maybe you and your puppy get drawn into some weirdo-world full of dangers.

Yea, those are not the memories I’m talking about, although they can work, too. What I’m talking about are not my own memories, but the memories of my characters, characters I’ve already created, or am in the process of creating. What I’m talking about are memories that don’t (yet) exist. How does that work, you might wonder.

As writers we have this wonderful gift of a vast imagination. Sometimes I just sit somewhere, staring into the void, thinking of some character that may or may not already exist in a novel of mine. I see his story unfold in my head. I live through his story, feeling all his emotions. I’ve never before thought of that part of his life, yet when “making it up” it feels as if I’m remembering his life. Does that make sense to you? It’s like a journey into a world you are about to create, without any map, without any guide, other than the character (or characters) you’re thinking about. It’s like reading a good book or watching a good movie. And you’re right there, in it.

It feels like you’re remembering what this character has gone through, as he goes through it as you make it up. Those are his memories, which you are creating in the process of remembering them. You’re following him, letting him lead you to where he needs to be, watching him live his life. You’re not going forth and back in your head, wondering: would this make sense? Should I place him here, or there? Would it work if I had him do this or rather that?
If you do that, you’re not remembering. You’re plotting. Without intuitively knowing this character.

A couple of tips for your adventure: You’ve got to give it some time. Sometimes 15 mintues are not enough. Sometimes you’ll go back and remember a whole scene several times because you enjoyed it so much. That’s good, because it will imprint in your memory to write it down later. Don’t write down anything while you’re remembering. Don’t do anything at all, other than following your thoughts. If you interrupt yourself because you need to write down what you just saw in your head, so you won’t forget it, you’ll break the magic of your journey into your character’s past. If you can’t trust yourself to remember the amazing things you just created in your head for a half an hour or more, with all the little details, train your brain by going only 10 mintues at first, then gradually increase your time away in that new world. I tend to write mine down hours later or even the next day. Occasionally I forget small details, but sometimes they come back, and if not: hey, you’ve got that gift of a vast imagination, don’t forget that.

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Characters in Conflict is not Enough

With permission, I’d like to share an article from one of Randy Ingermanson’s e-zines today. There is not much to say about this, as the article speaks for itself, and I could not put it any better than Randy. Read this, think about it, share your thoughts. I had an ‘ah, yes’ moment – did you?

Creating: Nothing is More Important Than…

Long ago when I began learning to write, I picked up this handy definition of fiction:

Fiction is “characters in conflict.”

That’s a good rule of thumb, and yet it isn’t the whole truth, nor is it always strictly true. Let me give you a couple of counterexamples:

Imagine a novel about two thugs, each trying to kill the other. These thugs are mindless brutes. Neither one much cares about anything. Neither one even cares whether he himself lives or dies.

Therefore, neither does the author. Therefore, neither does the reader. The entire story is nothing but pointless violence.

Are there “characters in conflict” in this story? Yes.

Is this fiction? No.

This is not the sort of story anyone would want to read. Having “characters in conflict” is not enough.

Imagine a second novel about a lone character, the last survivor of an ill-fated run to the South Pole in 1901.

Our hero’s goal is to make it home alive, bringing important scientific data gathered along the way. But lugging those rocks slows him down and makes it far more difficult to survive.

There’s only one character in this story, so we don’t exactly have “characters (plural) in conflict.”

But is this fiction? Yes, and it could make a gripping tale. (It would be similar in spirit to the real-life Scott expedition of 1911, which had no survivors.)

Clearly, “characters in conflict” is not even necessary.

So the old definition of fiction as “characters in conflict” seems to need a little revision.

What is fiction, really?

I’ve been thinking about this lately and my conclusion is that a better definition of fiction is “values in conflict.”

I define a “value” as a “core truth” for a character which can be phrased in this form:

“Nothing is more important than ________.”

A “value” is any word or phrase your character would use to fill in the blank. Most characters will have several values. Good characters will have several conflicting values.

In the first counterexample I gave above, neither of the thugs have any values that your reader can identify with. Most characters in most novels could at least say, “Nothing is more important than survival.”

But the two thugs in question lack even that basic value.

No values. No story. It’s that simple.

In the second counterexample, our hero is all alone in his world, but he has two powerful values:

* “Nothing is nore important than survival.”

* “Nothing is more important than scientific discovery.”

These values are at odds with each other. The character can dump his load of rocks and improve his chances of getting home alive. Or he can risk his life for the sake of science. When the going gets rough, which will he choose?

Fiction is about making hard choices between conflicting values.

We should note that one particular value, “Nothing is more important than survival,” is practically universal. Virtually all characters in fiction have this value. Virtually all readers have it too.

Deep fiction comes when a character has one or more values that rival the survival instinct.

At a recent conference, I analyzed THE HUNGER GAMES, by Suzanne Collins, to see what made it work. I found that the strength of conflict between the values of the main characters drove the novel.

Here’s a quick summary of the story:

A 16-year-old girl, Katniss Everdeen, volunteers to take her sister’s place in an arena where 24 teens will battle each other to the death. One of the other competitors, Peeta Mellark, has been secretly in love with Katniss since they were five years old.

THE HUNGER GAMES is a deep and powerful story. The reason is very simple. Each of the two main characters has three values that are in conflict.

Let’s look at Katniss’s central values:

* “Nothing is more important than survival.”

* “Nothing is more important than my sister.”

* “Nothing is more important than avoiding love, because the more people you love, the more you have to lose.”

Each of these values is in conflict with the other two.

Katniss decides early in the story that she values her sister more than her own survival.

The ongoing conflict in the story comes as she feels a growing attraction to Peeta. Can she dare to return his love, when she knows with certainty that they can’t both survive the arena?

Likewise, Peeta has three central values:

* “Nothing is more important than survival.”

* “Nothing is more important than protecting Katniss.”

* “Nothing is more important than being true to who you are.”

For Peeta, these values are in massive conflict.

Like Katniss, he decides early in the story that his survival is the least important of his three main values. He goes into the arena planning to sacrifice himself to keep Katniss alive.

The problem for Peeta is that he’s a genuinely good, decent, and caring person. In the arena, it won’t be enough for him to fight merely to protect Katniss.

Defense alone won’t save her. If Katniss is to live, the other 22 must die.

To save the girl he loves, Peeta is going to have to kill. He must steel himself to be ruthless. To be somebody he is not. To violate his identity and therefore to trample one of his primary values. Can he do that?

There’s a reason THE HUNGER GAMES works so well with readers. The novel is packed full of value-conflicts.

Hard choices. Moral dilemmas.

If you’ve read THE HUNGER GAMES, think about some of the other principal characters:

Katniss and Peeta have a coach, a drunkard named Haymitch. What are Haymitch’s values and how are they in conflict?

Katniss is lucky to get an amazing stylist who deeply cares about her, Cinna. What are Cinna’s conflicting values?

There’s a massive brute named Cato in the Games who is obviously the guy to beat. Does Cato have values? Can you guess what they must be?

How do they create conflict for him — and for Katniss and Peeta?

Values are critical to great fiction because values determine what your characters do. Values make your characters’ actions believable.

Conflicting values make your characters’ actions unpredictable.

So how about that novel you’re working on? Is it ripping your heart out because each one of the central characters has to make an impossible choice between two values?

If so, what are those values?

If not, then it might be time to change your game plan.

Look into your characters. Push them against the wall and make them fill in the sentence, “Nothing is more important than _________.”

Take what they tell you and run with it.

For the novelist, nothing is more important than values in conflict.


Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 28,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.

Download your free Special Report on Tiger Marketing and get a free 5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.

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From Beginnings…

Do you often look back to when you first started writing? I do. Sometimes it surprises people when you tell them you wrote your first story or essay at the age of 10, but how is it any different from all these very talented children beginning to write their own songs, learn to play instruments and develop a phenomenal voice at such young age?

I was ten, I must have just entered fifth grade, though for some odd reason I have a memory of still being in elementary school, when writing my first very short shortstory. How can you trust one memory when another tells a different tale? And both in the same head…

I’ll stick with it for purposes of ease–I was ten when I began putting my fantasy on the paper. The first of my stories, as I recall, was about some robber band at a crossing and an old lady at a window in  her house. That’s pretty much all I can remember. There was another story I wrote either right after or simultaneously. My mom always expressed how proud she was and how much she liked my writing – just the kind of stuff a young girl needs to hear to keep doing what she loves the most. I was so excited that I took the loose, handwritten pages and glued their left sides together, so that they would appear like a little book. Ain’t that cute! Then I lent them to one of my mom’s friends who was staying at our  house for a weekend or so. I remember she commented on them, but I was and still am very sad that I never saw my stories again after having given them to her. They somehow got lost. Maybe she kept them without permission thinking it was a gift, or maybe it got lost in my sister’s bedroom (the room our guest was staying in). Whatever the case may have been – my stories had found their way into the endless vortex of chaos, where lost things go. (digressing from the topic a little here: do you sometimes swear you had something and then could never ever find it again? My mom always said “The house loses nothing” – yet things remain lost sometimes, and you just know that they were in the house last you had seen them)

I remember soon afterwards I took one of my little notebooks (those your mommy buys you for elementary school), and made it my goal to fill the whole notebook with only one story! It was probably like ten or twenty pages haha – but for a small girl that’s a lot, and I wanted to make my mom proud! I came up with a story about a pig that was searching for something – I believe it was friendship, but I truly don’t remember. The pig walked from one place to another in search of whatever it was that it hoped to find. On its way it spoke to plants and other animals. I wrote the story and at the bottom of each page I drew a picture, with colored pencils, of the pig and its encounter. I think we can all agree here that the proper usage and dividing of space for a story and picture per page, or the success of doing just that, is quite amazing for a girl that age. And I recall I loved how my drawings looked – I was quite proud of them.

Here is a funny thing about my pig-story, before we get to the sad part: I named my pig and thus the story “Hamlet”. Well… what do you say about that? Let me tell you this: back then I had no idea who Shakespeare was or what he had written! I was convinced that I had made that name up. And it fit so perfectly well – there was no other name that pig possibly could have had. Hamlet=pig and pig=Hamlet – it seemed like carved in stone to me then. No reality or truth other than that existed. That’s not what my thoughts told me-that’s how I felt then.

Well, here is the sad part: I lost that one too! Sometimes I really want to cry about it, because I can still occasionally feel the love I had for this one. When my parents seperated, I visited my father every 2nd weekend of every month, and one of those weekends I took my Hamlet story with me, to show it to my dad. It never made it back home… my dad and I searched for it but we couldn’t find it. I was devestated then! And today simply disappointed in myself, maybe a bit heartbroken. This wasn’t some friend who was here to visit. This was my dad’s place. However, I have to be honest concerning that: I did not and do not blame my father. Oddly enough I blame no one but myself.

So… tell me about your beginnings. If you’d like.

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