Category Archives: writing tricks

Organize your thoughts

So, every writer has their strengths, and every writer has their weaknesses.  As it happens, I know that one of my big weaknesses is that I’m not a very visual person.  I don’t really think of my characters in terms of their appearance, and I don’t really think of places in terms of their layout, or where they are in relation to one another.  Most of the time, it really isn’t that big of a problem.  I don’t usually have a reason to tell the reader how long it takes to get from point a to point b, or describe a particular birthmark, or anything like that.  But every once in a while I find myself tripping over myself.  Especially when I’m working on a series.

For example, for effect I might have my main character looking up at one person, in one scene, and looking down at another, half a book later.  If I do that, it’s going to make it hard to explain how the person he looks up at and the person he looks down at are standing nose to nose glaring into each other’s eyes a book or two later.  But that is something I am completely likely to do simply because my writing is largely about emotional effect and I don’t often think about the physical limitations.

That’s one of the reasons I’ve spent the last few years training myself to keep a cheat sheet for my characters.  I usually group them together with the people to whom they’re most closely associated, then I write a brief physical description, focusing on two or three features, and make a note of anything important about them.

Usually that’s enough.  I have to admit, I would like to have photographs instead.  I know that some writers will ‘cast’ their book as though it was a movie, putting actors into specific rolls so they have somebody to visualize when they’re writing.  Honestly, given the kind of stuff I write about, I think I’d do better to use mug shots for my characters. Especially since you can see, right on the photograph, how tall they are.  Who knows, maybe I’ll start doing that.

The thing is, that’s great for people, but it’s harder for locations.  Sometimes I use places that I’m familiar with.  For example, the protagonist of my current series lives in a trailer rather like the one I lived in for a year.  He decorates his differently, of course, but when I’ve got an action sequence in the works, it’s helpful to imagine it happening in a place I’m intimately familiar with.  But that doesn’t always work, Mostly because I’ve only lived in a few places.  And the layouts of my homes don’t help when I’m trying to create a working business.

Not to mention, my stories take place in cities and while I don’t feel the need to draw out actual maps for my readers to reference, it’s not a bad idea to have something that I can reference so I’m consistent when dealing with drive times or remembering which place is nearest to which other place.

For that, I’ve found something fantastic!

Did you know that the people who make newspapers use giant rolls of paper?  And when those rolls of paper get too small to be used in making more newspapers, they sell the rolls?  At pretty decent prices, I might add?  Right now I’ve got two rolls of unused paper, which is more than enough to completely cover the walls in my bedroom, living room, and kitchen, and I spent less than fifteen dollars on them!

These things are fantastic!  I’ve got a map of my fake town, a giant timeline with a rough sketch of everything that’s going to happen in this series, blueprints for where my protagonist lives and works, and more blank paper still available than I’m likely to use in the next five years!

I’m considering taking my cheat sheet of characters and making character clouds on one of these suckers.  It might help me as I try to keep track of who is connected to whom.

Well, that’s my helpful tidbit for today.  Spend a few bucks on big paper and cover your walls with your ideas.

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The art of the Short Story

For years I struggled, and failed, to write short stories.  I’d come up with a good idea (well, they sure seemed like good ideas at the time), I’d start writing, and suddenly I’d realize that I had another novel on my hand.  I mean, I never finished them, but my difficulties with finishing books are for another day.  Let’s try to stay on point here, people.

Basically, I’d start writing the story, and suddenly I’d realize that I was ten pages in and I hadn’t even gotten to the story, yet, I was still basically just describing the ‘ordinary world.’  Or, if I did manage to get right into the actual meat of the story, I’d realize that the really interesting bit was what happened after the story that I wanted to tell.  Or I’d fall in love with a character and want to tell all about them….

It wasn’t actually a problem, at the time, I was still in grade school at the time, even if I had managed to finish a short story, I wouldn’t have known what to do with it, and it sure as hell wouldn’t have been accepted anywhere.

I’m not going to claim that I’ve perfected the art of writing short stories since then, but I am happy to say that I’ve gotten a lot better at it over the years.  I’ve written around sixty short stories in the past couple of years, and I’ve published about a dozen of them, which isn’t an earth shattering number, obviously, but I’m proud to have gotten that done.

I don’t know how common this problem is, being unable to limit yourself to a short story when you know that you have so much to write, but I have talked to a couple of people who’ve been through it as well, so I’d like to share a couple of things that have worked for me in the past.

The first trick I’ve found involves writing about characters that I have in other books.  One of the big problems for me is that, when I start a short story, I often find that I create a huge world behind it.  In order to make the characters ‘on screen’ three dimensional, I give them backstories, reasons for their insanities, and I want to explain that.  If I have a book, or a series of books in the works with those same characters in them, then I can set aside the unnecessary explanations.  I don’t need to introduce all of the people in their life, or all of their idiosyncracies.  The character is fixed in my head the universe is established, and I can focus on the story.

The second trick I use is what I call the trick trick.  I take an idea, some sort of kooky, off the wall  writing style idea, and I write it like that.  My favorite example is writing the entire story as a one sided dialogue.  I’ve read it a couple of times, and I love it.  It’s tricky to do, because you have to phrase things in such a way that you convey what was said, or what just happened.  But that’s the point.  Writing everything as one side of a conversation, and creating a meaningful story out of that takes concentration and energy, so you find yourself needing to close up the story sooner.  It has the added benefit of stretching you as a writer, and helping you figure out how to pull off similar things on a smaller scale when you’re writing a novel.

The third trick is the emotion trick.  Basically, for me, these stories are about finding a specific instant within a story, and focusing on the emotion of it.  Whether it’s a soldier who is about to sacrifice himself to save his platoon, or a victim who has just discovered that he is in the clutches of a serial killer, or an old woman with dementia who is trying to figure out why she’s in a house with all of these unknown, but kind people, the point of the writing isn’t to tell a story, it’s to evoke a reaction in the reader.  In the course of creating that emotion, you do in fact tell a story, but the story is incidental to the emotion.  And since, in longer works, you have to have rising and falling emotions, you find yourself limited in how long you can make this particular work.