Monday, February 22, 2010

Writing Communities - Fowcs and Mowcs

I was recently invited to join a free online writing community (fowc) by a fellow writer who I know well. And I joined. And overall the experience has been positive so far.

I've also been a part of a membership online writing community (mowc, the kind you pay for monthly) for almost a year and a half.

But I'm still skeptical. How come I don't hear about any bestselling authors who use fowcs or mowcs? Are they just a big time sink? Will they actually help improve my writing?

I don't know the answers, but I have a few thoughts.

1. Online writing communities will ALWAYS sound like a great, wonderful idea.

2. Fowcs tend to be more about the passion of writing, which I like, and less about showmanship, competitions, and elitism.

3. Mowcs are great at keeping freeloaders and inactive people from cluttering things up.

4. Whether a fowc or a mowc, I think any online writing community (owc) ought to encourage as much writing as possible, instead of begging for reviews.

5. What's with this whole "We have our own currency here" thing? It's never made sense to me why an artificial currency has to be involved. I don't want people leaving a review of my writing just because they get 30 golden review bucks to do so. I want them to read it and leave a review because they like the story, or like me as an author. Otherwise I get the one-liner review: "I thought it was good and compelling." I'm not looking for blurbs. I'm looking for perspective.

6. One thing OWCs are always good for is a self-confidence boost. As long as you can ignore any negative comments that come through, there are usually a lot of smiling ones to look at.

Does anyone have an opinion about OWCs, FOWCs, or MOWCs? Has anyone found an online community that has helped them get a book written or published?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Growing your story

With all the advice out there on how to organize plot lines, structure outlines, and revise first drafts, I have found very little that talks about how to think about your story.

Every advice I've ever read or received on how to outline or organize story material assumes I already have material stored up in my mind. It assumes I already have a mess that needs to be organized. But too often I skip the step that no one has ever told me to do: think.

Someone asked me recently if I had any ideas on how to move bare conceptions and single scenes forward into something like a story. I have a lot of what I call snippets or stubs of stories. A scene, a conversation, a witty and elegant description, or an idea for a unique character. These are all little tiny seeds of a story.

I find I need to plant those seeds by writing down what I have. But I have to let them grow on their own by just walking away from the keyboard. A snippet might remain a snippet for weeks or even months before it's grown enough in my mind. But during that time, my thoughts will return to it while I'm driving or waiting in line, and while I think about it, it just grows.

Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz, once described being a writer as someone who sits around in their underwear and gets paid a dollar for doing so. Well, I don't sit around in my underwear, but I do take an awful lot of time to just think about my story. Do outlines and structures and arches and character profiles help? Yes. But not so much as to carry the entire burden of story-growing on their shoulders.

To rephrase the extended metaphor:

Plant the seed of a story by putting it on paper. Your mind is the soil. Let its roots grow deep and long before it pokes out over the surface., unprotected where anything might happen to it.

When it grows, encourage it to come up out of the dirt and reach for the sunlight. Add branch by branch, leaf by leaf, letting every aspect of it grow inside your mind until its ready to be put to paper.

Of course, even before all of this you must ask yourself what kind of tree do you want to plant? Is the purpose of your story to block wind? Farmers often use trees to shelter their crops from the wind. Are you writing your story to shelter other ideas from getting blown away?

Or perhaps you want to plant a tree for shade: Simple, relaxing, easy to take care of. Something that doesn't require a lot of effort to enjoy. Something that can be read easily. (Commercial or Mainstream fiction)

You could plant a tree for its fruit. Something that will directly feed the masses, or even just your own appetite. Something that is almost literally food for thought. (Literary works, etc.)

The story might need to be planted for use later on as lumber. I mean, wouldn't you love an author who wrote a book so rich and accessible that you could just go up to it with an ax and carry away solid ideas to use in your own life? (Self-help)

Or maybe you just want something aesthetically pleasing to make that everyday landscape perfect. (Slice of Life)

Do you want a tall tree or a short tree? A wide one, or a thin one? Do you have space restrictions like power lines, word count maximums, or even minimum word counts? Do you want a tree for its flowers, something thats beautiful for the season you are in right now, or that your readers are in, or that the country is in? (Political, current issues, etc.)

Or maybe you're planting an exotic tree, and hoping your green thumb will nurture it in an environment where it's not really meant to grow. Something that's completely outside its normal sphere. (Sci-Fi and Fantasy)

Or maybe you want to plant an Evergreen, something that won't change with the seasons, will always be a predictable height and shape, and has a pleasant smell. (? Ideas for what this would be?)

I could go on and on.

And yes, sometimes our stories do contract dutch elm disease and have to be cut down and killed. Sometimes they get struck by lightning and the entire growth structure of one limb of plot gets cut off and it changes the story forever. Sometimes they catch fire. Sometimes our entire forest of stories might catch fire. (This is very sad when it happens. I think it's called writer's block.)

Or maybe you're just not sure what your tree is because it changes from day to day. Maybe it looks more like its just going to be a bush or a weed.

In any case, I think the most important step in getting a story from conception to fruition is thought. Pure, long, hard and deep thought. It's okay to sit around in your house, (in your underwear if you must,) and just think as a part of the process.

I'm tempted to go into what happens during the different seasons to our forest of novel ideas, but I'll leave that up to you.

Metaphor of the Month Assignment: (Finally!)

Describe your current WIP (work in progress) in a metaphor like it's a tree. What are its aspects? Why are you growing it? In what stage of growth is it in?


My WIP is a willow tree. I'm not exactly sure why I'm growing it. It's really big, and its plot lines hang way down low to the ground so the reader can see how beautiful and magnificent it is. It drapes everywhere, offering accessibility to the very edge of its growth, the tips of the branches, where new things are always coming out. They're not way up high and hard to reach like other trees. I want my readers to be able to duck inside its canopy of branches for a little while and just enjoy its complexity, but not be alienated by it. I guess perhaps I'm growing it for aesthetic purposes. It's a beautiful tree, and it's unusual enough to be noticed in a front yard, but not so unusual as to be called exotic. I like it that way. It will draw attention to itself without making the reader feel like they are encountering something completely foreign.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Strong Characters

In the comments last week Cindy mentioned that it not only takes the correct motivation behind a character's moves to make a story work, but it just plain takes strong characters.

When you read, what makes a good character?

The other day, I found myself watching a few favorite tv shows over again simply because I love seeing the characters in action. For me, it doesn't matter if my favorite law enforcement people are in law enforcement, the medical field, or homeless shelters. I know the characters would be the same and I would still enjoy their interactions.

With my story this week, I'm going to be focusing on how to make my characters the kind of characters you would want to read in any book, regardless of which setting they're in. I think strong characterization not only comes from knowing a person's motivation, but also from how they interact with each other. Not that it needs to turn into a soap opera of any kind, but who the person is can be shown through how he/she reacts to others.

I guess what I really mean is any character I create always has more to him/her than I'm aware of. I make assumptions about them that can't be put into words. So when I put my characters in different situations, or plug in other people to their life, the things I wasn't aware of come out.

It's all there. I just need to create a way to let my characters show it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Character Motivation

(Eek! It's Tuesday! I forgot to post yesterday!)

I've been working on the outline to my story using a combination of the snowflake method and the phase drafting method and it's been a lot of fun. Even though I've already written the first draft of the story, the outline is helping me to flesh out characters and scenes that are wimpy, and is drawing my attention to plot holes I didn't see before.

What I've discovered: A character's motivation is EVERYTHING! You can't just have a character do what you want them to do without having an explanation as to why they would do such a thing. Outlining helps me to see further ahead. If there's an action that's essential to the plot, I need to make sure whatever character is going to perform that action has the kind of personality and motivation to take that action.

For instance, in my story the villain ends up becoming extremely powerful, escapes, and then purposefully performs an action that will kill him within 48 hours. I had to figure out a motivation for him to do all of these things.

Motivation for....
1. becoming extremely powerful: He's trapped on a planet and needs the power to get back home, thus he's highly motivated to gain power, even if it means becoming a murderer.
2. escaping: It's not how he wanted to leave, but he is strongly motivated by the group of law enforcement ninjas who are going to kill him if he doesn't leave his entire plan unfinished and left behind.
3. drinking poison: This is the most complex motivation of them all. There are several reasons he's motivated to do this, but the biggest is that he's a sociopath who unwaveringly has to accomplish his goal at any cost. He does this. As soon as his goal is accomplished, he doesn't care anymore. For him, the completion of the goal is what mattered more than getting home.

Now, if I were to create such a villain and have him be even keel emotionally, or unflappable, and suddenly show that he has an obsession with completing goals, it wouldn't work. But because I know what his final motivation will be, I can plant seeds early on about how the villain has a deep-seated need to complete goals regardless of any consequences or cost.

I'm hoping the reader will get to the end and be surprised, but still be able to say "I should've known that was coming."