Category Archives: Writing Problems

Writing Problems #4

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It’s been more than a year, but welcome back to Writing Problems Sometimes, this time with an episode about how to properly begin a story. I know, it seems like that’s pretty easy, and who on earth needs help with that, but trust me, it’s not easy, and help is a good thing.

It really is.

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“Where the fuck do I begin?!” or How to find the perfect place to begin your story

The problem:

I’m pretty sure we all asked ourselves the above question at least on one occasion during our time as writers. Because let’s face it, nothing sucks like a beginning gone wrong (I think I mentioned that before. Somewhere in between angry curses at the universe and a bunch of profanities…). When the beginning is wrong, the story is likely to turn out feeling off as well. All the more important that we find the right time and place to start the story, the exact right point on the time line that we arbitrarily define as The Beginning. It’s not so much the real beginning, though, but the point we feel is best to jump into the story and start telling it.

Because here’s the deal: Stories don’t really have a beginning. All there is is a point that’s good enough to serve as one, the point where we can begin telling the story without withholding too much background information. We’re treading a fine line, and we feel the pressure to “get it right”. I find this incredibly hard. Some of you might not; you might say “what, why, it’s so easy, just pick a day and start the goddamn story”. For those, however, who need to put a little more effort into their beginnings (and I know you’re out there, believe me, I know), here’s a little beginner’s guide to beginnings. Lame pun intended.

The solution:

I’ll start by putting it in a nutshell: Start when the story begins. Don’t hit me, it’s true! The problem is just that, well, there’s more than one story. We have the main character’s story, the story of their life. We have the story of the world our story is set in. We may have the villain’s story, too. And I’m sure their stories are interesting as well (no irony here, they probably are). But they’re not the stories we’re trying to tell. We will tell the plot. Now, plot =!= story, but for our purposes, it is, because that’s what it is: the story we want to tell is the plot of our novel (short fiction is completely different from this – it MUST start precisely when the “action” starts, it has no room for anything else). So what we have to figure out is the point when “character’s backstory” changes into “epic plot about fight of Good vs. Evil with lots of drama in-between”. It’s easiest to do it this way: What was the precise day that changed your MC’s life from “ordinary” to “future hero”? Example: for the heroine in Under the Northern Star, it is the day the mages come to town and discover who she is. For my MC in Renegade, it’s the day she decides to stop a government hit squad and save a “traitor” from execution. Those days and their events changed the course of each character’s life drastically. Before that, they lived ordinary lives; afterwards, they decides to take action and change the course of history. (Sort of. But that’s not the point here.)

Now we have a Day Zero, so to speak. Now, we could decide to start the story in medias res, and if it works, why not? For Renegade, it could work because the story itself has a lot of running, hiding, starting riots and shooting stuff. The cast is one that allows for explanations of a lot of backstory via dialogue and/or action and interaction. It doesn’t need ten pages of Allie doing regular (read: boring) stuff. I could still write it, but it’s not necessary.

Still, some stories require a little build-up. Under the Northern Star is pretty different in that regard. It’s hard to explain, but the MC kind of needs this extra chapter of normal life; it adds something to the story that would be missing if I just started with her running through the woods in fear.

Now, as the author, it’s up to you to decide whether your story is suitable to have an abrupt beginning. If so, be happy, stop reading, and go start writing your story, what the hell are you waiting for, goddammit? If not, feel free to go binge-eat a whole bucket of [insert flavour of choice] ice-cream, it’s okay, I won’t judge. Or you can now take your story (you know, the plot-story) and go on poking and prodding it to find out how many words it will take to tell the reader what you think is necessary before the plot really starts.

I think the main reasons for a “boring” (as in, MC does boring normal stuff instead of shooting fireballs at demons) first chapter are a) backstory and b) atmosphere. Both are valid reasons to let the first chapter or two take place before Day Zero. However, don’t let it be too long before that day, and make sure it’s really necessary to include the information in those passages. Infodumps in first chapters are a common problem and tend to make people put the book down and never pick up again because if the author can’t write a compelling first chapter, why should I think they can write a compelling story? If you have to get this off your chest, do this: include the first chapter as you think it’s necessary. When you are three, four chapters in, go back to that first chapter and read it again; if you find that all the info is in the story anyway, delete it, it’s unnecessary. If you still find bits and pieces your reader needs to know, but don’t fit into the main story, only keep those bits and pieces in and label the whole thing “Prologue”. People don’t expect prologues to be super-thrilling, in fact, readers expect a prologue to be completely different from the rest of the book (“…otherwise it’d be the first chapter, right?”). Even if the prologue is a little boring, chances are they’ll simply skip it and at least give the actual story a try. It’s kind of cheating, but not really; you get to keep the info in the story, but the reader has the option to skip it and read the story without it. Mostly, though, the story doesn’t need it and is fine without the additional, super-important information. Sad fact of life.

Atmosphere is a little different. Let me make this clear, I don’t think a prologue ever sets the atmosphere for the rest of the story. Of the few prologues I wrote, most were sorta-mysterious-but-not-really-because-we-know-the-little-girl-will-eventually-grow-up-to-be-the-MC. Then I went ahead and let the story begin with a bunch of guys getting drunk and singing dirty songs. Atmosphere killed. The first chapter doesn’t do this kind of thing. Since it appears to be part of the plot-story, it needs to feel that way. And the way it feels sets the mood for a good part of what comes next. Again, example time! In Under The Northern Star, the first chapter has Tyra going to work, interact with her stepmother and her best friend, and bang a dude she’s only seeing twice a year. It’s her life, and she likes it, even though she’s wondering what she would do if she could ever leave that damn small town she’s stuck in. It sets a mood that I need to make the following chapter more intense, the chapter that is Day Zero and takes all that away from her. The rest of the book deals with how she tries to regain what she lost, to find something new and finally defend and fight for what she loves. I feel it’s important to show the reader what matters to her so it hurts a lot more when it’s taken away from her. It also gives the second part of the story more impact, when she’s finally built a new life for herself, and again some douche is trying to take it all away. And finally, it highlights the differences in her character before and after; she’s still scared to death by the danger, but instead of running like she did on Day Zero, she takes up arms and fights back. Without that first chapter, a lot of things in that story wouldn’t work the way I want them to.

That’s what you, the author, need to decide: Is there anything important before Day Zero that adds to the story? If so, start there. If not, in medias res might be your best bet. After all, even if you later decide you need a little more info before your MC goes off shooting at aliens, you can still rewrite chapter one and add it. In most such cases, that’s totally enough. Don’t give your readers too much too soon. Let them figure things out by themselves. The story develops as much in your readers’ minds as it does through your words.

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Well. That was lengthy. Still, I felt like it was necessary, after seeing half a dozen “where should my story begin” threads in the past few weeks, and that’s only the NaNo forums. And writing a decent beginning is hard. Anyone who doesn’t have trouble with that, you’re a hero. The rest might find this piece useful. And if all else fails, striptease! (That has a context, I promise!)

Also, on Guild Wars 2 related news (yes, feel free to stop reading now^^), my warrior (you know, this guy) is level 80, finally! Now that I’m not the pathetic person anymore who only has one character on max level and will never have another, I can go about crafting a fun weapon for myself. Which will likely take another year. Sighs. But those legendaries look so cool!

I have weird problems. Good thing my writing ain’t one of ’em for now XD

-Ricarda

€dit: Also, WordPress seems to hate paragraphs these days, it won’t let me create any. Goddammit…

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Writing Problems #3

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Hello again and welcome to “Writing Problems WheneverTheHellIFeelLikeIt”. Lately, I was writing a rather difficult scene involving a character’s death. I really liked the girl, and I was sorry to see her go. So I resorted to my usual coping technique to make it a little easier, and I thought some of you might find that useful, too…

 

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Kill your darlings or How to do what needs to be done without having a nervous breakdown

 

The problem:
So there it is, the great battle between Good and Evil, the absolute climax of your story. There are fights everywhere, your hero is confronting the Big Bad, he falls to the ground, the Baddie raises his weapon – And now you’re stuck with a dilemma: Who will throw himself between the hero and the fatal bullet/knife/ball of fire?

 

The solution:
A classic situation. You managed to save your sweetheart characters through most of the story, but now you have no choice: one of them has to die. It’s just… how could you possibly kill off someone you love so dearly? Believe me, I know the feeling. I would love to give everyone a happy ending. But sometimes, the story demands a sacrifice, and it breaks my heart to deny someone their happily-ever-after. Still, I know that most of the time, someone has to die. I only ever had one story where it was possible, that, to say it with the words of my favourite physician, “just this once, everybody lives”. Most of my stories are of the kind that needs one or more deaths to work, to make sense and come alive. Letting everybody live makes them feel artificial, constructed and kinda boring. So I need to pick my sacrifice. And I do, though it sometimes very nearly makes me cry. After the fifth crying fit upon the death of one of my babies, I decided that I needed a way to avoid those psychotic episodes. It doesn’t sit well with the neighbours if you start yelling at your screen at three in the morning because the love interest of your MC (and sort of your recent crush… don’t judge me, I’m single^^) dies a slow and painful death because he had to save the key character in the ritual that will save the world…
Now, it took me a few tries, but I found a way to make it all easier. It’s rather simple, actually – pretty much just an alternate ending. More precisely, a happy ending for the character who will have to go belly-up. Sometimes, it’s done with a few additional sentences, but there have been cases when I have written approximately fifty pages of what-if. And it was worth it. I loved the guy, I really did. Still, I had to kill him off halfway through the story. So I kind of… wrote half a dozen stories about what life he would’ve had if I hadn’t, complete with how many kids he had and which girl he would’ve gotten. Yes, I’m crazy. Sheesh, you should’ve expected that, reading a writing blog and all…

 

So, what I’m saying is that, basically, giving the poor guy a decent life in my own head made writing the actual story much easier. It may sound stupid, not being able to kill off a fictional character just like that, but some of us get a tiny bit emotionally attached. I mean, we spend days, nights, holidays, writing sprees, sometimes even Christmas or our birthday with a small group of ink people. If we didn’t like them, our readers wouldn’t feel anything when reading about them, be that love, hatred, jealousy, shame, whatever. In order to make our readers feel, we need to feel. Which doesn’t make it any easier, especially if the story itself is hard to write. So, if you have to face that decision again of who will have to die in order to save the world, maybe giving them a fairy tale ending with sparkles and rainbows will make it a bit easier to go through with it – hopefully without screaming at your computer and throwing your character sheets out the window :)

 

 

 

-Ricarda

Writing Problems #2

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Welcome back to “WritingProblemsSomewhat-Weekly”! This time, I’ll address the fantasy writer’s favourite tool: magic! Yep, I know this is all fantasy-heavy here. But since this is my primary genre, that won’t change any time soon; but most of this can be useful when writing in any genre, really…

 

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“It’s magic, it can do anything! or Why you shouldn’t say that. Ever.

 

The problem:
So you have your characters, your setting, and a vague plot outline at the ready. Yet suddenly, you realise that this outline isn’t enough. Something is still missing. And after a few minutes, hours or days of thinking, re-thinking and freaking out, you decided that your story needs something to spice it up a little. One natural solution is: magic. You add a little spell here, send some summoned spirits to the rescue fifty pages later, and then, at the very peak of suspense – well, that’s the point when you realise that you could just scratch the last twenty-seven chapters because, with one snap of his fingers, the Big Baddie could have blown away your heroes and established his Evil Empire of Doom right at the beginning of the story. Shit happens.

 

The solution:
To prevent yourself from becoming increasingly frustrated with your story, your apparently brainless Big Bad, and magic itself, you shouldn’t dive headlong into the realm of sorcery and devil worship, as our friends from certain catholic movements like to put it. If you are writing a story that involves magic, you should include a magic system in your planning. Yes, planning is a good thing. Some of us might be able to just run along with the flow of the story, but at some point, we all wish we could refer to notes and background info of some kind…
Anyway, back to topic! Apart from some character sheets (if you have more that one or two MCs), a story outline and a world map (one made with paint or your little brother’s crayons is totally sufficient, by the way), when writing Sword&Sorcery, add a basic outline of your magic system. It doesn’t need to be a fancy Excel document describing every possible spell, its effects and counter-spells. You just need to know the basics of how your magic works.

 

Some questions you should/could answer are:
-Does it lean more towards “spell-casting” or “mind-magic”?
-If you answered “spell-casting”, how do magicians do that? Do they need words, hand movements, certain ingredients (think hex bags, Supernatural style), or a combination thereof?
-Where does your “magic energy” come from? Does your magician fuel his spells all by himself, or can he pull the energy from an outside source?
-Can everyone learn magic, or do you have to be born a witch or wizard?
-Speaking of that, how do you learn it? Can you teach yourself, or do you need a teacher or go to a school?
-What exactly does your magic affect? Elements, nature, your magician’s environment in general? Or the living cell, your magician’s body, anything that is somehow alive? Or both? And what’s the difference?
-Some examples of use occur frequently in fantasy stories: environment manipulation, illusions, healing. It can’t hurt to know how these basic branches of magic work. When healing: Does your magician actively mend the body, or does he just speed up the healing process (meaning that if the injured person is too weak or the wound too bad, even magic doesn’t help)? Do illusions affect the conscious mind (read: the brain), or does that mean your magician creates the image of whatever he wants his opponent to see? Just write down the relevant branch of magic and what it does basically do. And of course, refer to this info every now and then as to not screw up your system, forcing you to start over again.

 

You might not need to answer all of the above questions. If magic only plays a minor role in your world and isn’t crucial to the plot, you can skip some of them. But if magic is a major plot point in your story, you might want to set up a firm system. If you know for yourself what is possible and what is not, you can implement the magic aspect much more easily into your plot and make its use a lot more plausible.
And always remember: If your MCs can do it, your Big Bad can probably do it, too! If Gandalf had been able to torch Sauron’s ring with a snap of his fingers, would Sauron (also a former wizard) himself have bothered hanging out at Barad Dûr as a giant eyeball? Probably not. If Harry Potter had been able to turn Voldemort to dust the first time he’d met him, Voldemort would have succeeded with killing infant Harry in the first place. I encountered this problem the first time I attempted to write a novel. Eighty pages in, I had no choice but let the Big Bad’s henchmen kill off my whole group of MCs. Doing anything else would have resulted in an utterly ridiculous plot-hole. Learn from my fail.
So set up some rules and stick to them. Of course these are your rules,and thus are not set in stone. If you feel the need to change them to improve your plot, do it. Just be consistent. No-one likes willy-nilly magic systems…

 

 

-Ricarda

Writing Problems #1

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So, there is this beautiful Tumblr, and yesterday’s blog entry, and they kind of inspired me to piece together my very own writer’s manual. Which isn’t a manual for writers, but for writers… err… well, you get the idea. Hopefully. I think I need some coffee now.

During my (and since I’m officially published, I can call it that^^) work as a writer, I frequently encounter the countless obstacles and banana skins of writing fiction. Well, it’s not always fiction, but most of the time, so the focus will be on that. The general idea is to collect all kinds problems, record them and provide you, my dear readers, with possible solutions. I can’t guarantee they will always work, or even most of the time. But they are options you can try, and even if it doesn’t help, writers are a creative bunch of people – maybe you find your own solution and care to share it with the world? Or maybe you have some trouble while writing you own story and need some advice? Well, actually, in this case I’d also recommend you visit the NaNoWriMo forums; people there are amazing. But don’t be afraid to ask, I’ll try my best to help.

I’ll categorise them under “Writing Problems”, so the articles are easy to find. And I’ll probably write them just in English for now; maybe translate them later, but that’s a very big maybe here. I’m a horribly lazy person, I know…

 

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So, now for the very first issue of “WritingProblemsWeekly” (or monthly; or whenever I manage to write something, really):

 

 

“A wild CHARACTER appeared!” or How To Deal With Fiction Tramps

 

Problem:

So, you just met the most brilliant character. Well-developed, with a nice set of skills, outside matching the inside, a decent name (this one’s always the hardest…), and not even the slightest hint of Mary Sue or Gary Stu. BUT there’s one major problem: You have no idea where to put them. No world, no society, not even a house where they could hang out for while. Basically, you just invented a fiction tramp.

The solution:

Here’s what I do to avoid having countless characters running around without purpose. Obviously, the easiest solution would be to delete them. Erase them from existence. BUT, crazy writers that we are, we just can’t. Somehow, such characters have a way to get to us, to take hold in our hearts and never let go. Which makes it also hard to kill them off for the sake of the story, but I’ll write about that another time. So, even if we manage to mentally kill at least some of them, there are still those who refuse to leave and who need a home. And it’s up to us to find them one.

Now it comes in handy if you’ve moved around a couple times already. You know how that works: You either decide on a city/area/planet, or circumstances pick it for you, like work/university/your parents. Now you go there and look for houses or flats. You inspect two or three or twenty different possible homesteads, walk around the rooms, try to figure out if you’d like to live there. Finally you find a place you like and stay.

Now we try replacing “homesteads” with “countries” and “rooms” with “cities” in the last sentence and start afresh. And that’s exactly what you will do with your homeless characters. If neither you nor they know where they belong, they might need to look around a little first. Let them stay in other stories for a while. Maybe as secondary characters you could scratch from a second draft if necessary. Maybe as passers-by who just exchange a few words with your main characters (a.k.a. “MCs”). Let them have cameos as actors in a TV show your MCs watch. Or just make up some random scenes with the stubborn tramps, see what happens. You’ll think of something. You’re a writer, after all. And maybe it takes only a few tries to find out where your beloved characters belong.

If you tried the above and still didn’t succeed after a reasonable amount of time (how long that would be is entirely up to you, of course), but refuse to abandon your characters, you could try… let’s call it my personal method.

When I moved out to go to university, it was already too late to apply for a dorm room; you see, in my course of studies, we had to take a test first, so it took them a week or two longer to notify us than the rest of the students. Which meant that pretty much all flats I could afford where already taken. Not to mention rooms in shared flats. So I was forced to take the only option left, a tiny, one-room-flat with a kitchen barely big enough for one person and not enough space for a decent dining table in the main room (well, there would be, if I sacrificed my exercise bike and the flatscreen with the gaming consoles – which is never gonna happen!). It’s small, the walls have a dozen layers of paint stuck to them and the floor looks always dirty, no matter how hard I scrub. But I had to move in, so what the hell. I made myself comfortable.

And this is option B for your characters. Take them, put them in the next best world you have (and preferably like, too), and just tell them “It’s this one or none at all for you!”. If you spend some time on helping them adjust, make themselves at home, it might just be that they find the place to not be so bad at all.

Now what are you waiting for? Fly, fly away and write!

-Ricarda