Let’s Talk about Place!

Describing the setting of any of my works is my own private hell.  I have a movie in my head and I can see where my people are and what’s going on there.  The most important part is the characters so why do I need to describe where they are.  After all, my readers are “watching” the same movie, aren’t they?

Yes, you’ve got it.  Unless everyone woke up this morning with telepathy and no one told me, there’s a hitch in my theory.  Psst, the secret is, no one else is seeing the movie and without some basic structure I’ve left people hanging in a grey void.  Trust me, they don’t like it out there.  I’ve tried dragging some of them out and paid the price.  So many tiny bits of story that have characters shaking their heads, saying no, this doesn’t float for us.

But how do I find the happy medium?  I don’t want to get so caught up in description that I lose the point, the plot, the people…hell, my readers.  (Don’t worry, I’ve expanded into a painful minimalism there.  I don’t run the risk of being the next Tolkien.)  Not to disparage him of course.  I enjoy his work immensely.  It’s just not my style and I’m sure mine would not have been his…

Okay, I wandered off in a tangent as I do when writing these things.  Where were my notes, otherwise known as the first draft?  I still struggle with making sure that some of my vision of place comes through.  When I write stories based on Earth, it’s okay to say “it took place in Grenada in 1892” because people can image search Grenada and think, oh okay, I get some of it now.  Then I only need to describe the house, the people, a small world.  With the Mars trilogy, it’s a big world.  Not just the one that Nadine lived in but also Sven.  The one where people like Anna had a place and Karl, a history, before we met them.  Yeah, it got big and thinking about trying to do that again is scary as hell.  So, if you have a little bit of world building fear or maybe setting paranoia, read on and I’ll do my best to give you some ideas to chew over.

Remember when I said that you needed to make sure the character was real before you started writing them?  The place is the same and everyone is going to do it slightly differently.  Maybe you’ve decided to skip the character building until you have a place to put them in.  That’s totally fine and I’ve known others who followed that path.

An Expensive Retreat started out as a short story and then several short stories, all taking place in the same town with the same struggles.  I even draw a map for myself, so far the only one I created.  It was really poorly done and I don’t think anyone ever needs to see it.  After all, it was only for me.  I drew bad pictures of houses while I wrote the novel, imagined streets, tried to smell what they would.  I tried to go to Mars in my imagination.  And then in the second novel, I sent myself back to Earth.  But not an Earth I recognize, another foreign place that I had to build to some extent.

Use your senses.  It was hot on Mars, a dry heat that seeps through your clothes, your skin and warms your very bones.  I’ve felt heat like that sometimes although I’m definitely a northern climate kind of person.  I used it though.  I’ve stood on the sidewalks of big cities and had to breathe in the dank air, the humidity and the smell of people, of things long abandoned and food lost to memory.  I’ve taken in the worst of those and I gave them to Sven, to Nadine to experience.  They made my world real.  The whistle of endless wind on Mars, an echo of that from the east coast.  The taste of dry bread and crisp apples, my own experiences too.  The hardest one for me was touch.  The feeling of fabric against her face when Nadine rests her head against Sven’s shoulder.  Those sorts of things could be replicated.  But I am not my characters.  I’m not going to react to them in the same way.

So, figure out what it smells like in your place.  Eat the food and listen to the birds or the flying cars or the carnivorous slugs.  What colours are things?  Does everyone share the same sensory experience or does that change?  The world is yours to build, to create, even in the current world, to offer.  Make sure your people fit.

I write things down because it makes it easier for me.  Whether you describe something on paper, digitally or inside of a memory, just make sure it’s real.

Advertisements

Novel Tips

I volunteer on the board of directors for the Ottawa Independent Writers (https://www.ottawaindependentwriters.com).  One night, I spoke with some people at a meeting who suggested that they wanted to learn the basics of writing a novel and what was the best venue?  I didn’t have an answer for that because I am self-taught for the most part.  But what I do have is my experience.  I have been writing for over twenty years.  It started out with poetry and I gradually added short stories, novels and now blog posts.  I’m learning by reading books (of course) and trial and error.  So for the next few blog posts, I’m going to talk about ‘How To Write a Novel,” in my own style.  Hope you’ll stick around for the ideas, even if you aren’t a writer.  You never know, you might become one.

Part One: The character(s)

So you have this great idea that you want to turn into a book.  It’s going to be absolutely wonderful and you can’t wait to get started.  So do it, start writing.  Write out a starting paragraph, even a chapter.  You can do your character development at the same time or before you write.  It’s entirely up to you.  But the character is everything.  So much so, let’s stop using the word ‘character.’  I don’t want to hear about these people as if they were fictional.  I want you to convince me that they’re real.  So how do we do that?  Get to know your character, first and foremost.  I’m not suggesting that you need to know how they celebrated their twelfth birthday or which vegetables they prefer.  But know their important aspects, their personality.  This will help you when you start throwing them into situations (a future post).

An Example:

I wrote a book called Pure Red Sand: An Expensive Retreat.  Actually, I wrote three books with these characters but you’ve probably only seen one, unless you’re an early follower with a Kindle.  I started this novel on a laptop on a small island in the Labrador Sea.  It was the first time I’d just decided to write a book.  I had the benefit that the book was VERY loosely based on a short story.  But very quickly I realized that the characters were too one dimensional to transfer from a four page short story to a 900 plus page trilogy.  They just weren’t strong enough.  So here’s what I decided while I was writing the first chapter.  

Nadine was going to be a strong woman.  She’d grown up that way and had little choice.  But there were repercussions for that kind of strength, in her life anyway.  She always made the difficult decisions, looking at things logically and with the best of intentions but maybe not with emotions at heart.  That might have made her a great medic.  But it also made her prickly with other people, unwilling to trust and maybe even reluctant to take on anything resembling a greater responsibility.  After all, she’d made a success out of her life.  Wasn’t that enough?  As many of you know, it wasn’t.

So once I had my character written, once I knew her, then I would know how she was going to react in certain situations.  For instance, when strangers came to her home, would she welcome them in or turn them away?

An Exercise:

Here are some questions you might want to consider when thinking about your character.  Whether you keep your ideas in your head (like me) or you want to write them out, this might help:

Are they of their own time? (Do you have time travel/a new world/an adventure?)  If they are, then you can take a lot of things for granted.  If not, keep in mind how people react to new things.

What things do they have in common with you? They say write what you know.  But I see a lot of scope in not being me.  That said, I find it easier to write the character when I have something in common with them.  Like Nadine, I always wanted to be strong.  I could empathize with her efforts and her mistakes.

What’s their emotional state?  People who have a fairly stable life are going to react differently to a crisis than those who are already having crises of their own.

How did they grow up?  Did they have economic/social stability?  Were they loved?  We’re all heavily influenced by our past.

Where are they now?  Nadine was a loner and a little anti-social in the beginning.

What kind of social network do they have? Are they close to family and friends or separate from those around them?

Keep adding your own questions until you have your people!

News:

If you’re in the Ottawa area on December 9, 2017, I will be at the Indie Author Book Fair. St David and St Martin Church Hall, 444 St Laurent Blvd. 2-6pm.  Come visit and pick up a couple of holiday presents.  A book makes a wonderful gift.

 

Down the Rabbit Hole

I watched a documentary, on youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CnF6Wej3YO8&t=117s), recently about the origins of romance in Britain.  While I put this on as a background to chores I was completing, I found the topic interesting, especially where it was related to books, novels, to the story (ie. pre 1920ish).  From their perspective, society learned about romantic love through the stories they read en masse.

It’s not the first time I’ve thought about or written about the power of the story but it was an interesting new take on it.  If we can change society (at whatever pace), that’s a heavy weight to bear.  I am definitely not suggesting that I can or that anyone else will.  But art does have an influence.  I don’t see it as a responsibility or a duty though.  Perhaps more of an opportunity.  Charles de Lint said “all endeavour is art when rendered with conviction” (1996/1999).  We can make artistic gestures out of our everyday (consider the Japanese tea ceremony versus pouring a cup of tea).  So this is not just for people who consider themselves artists, but maybe for everyone to be aware when we create.  Everything we put out there is a manifestation of ourselves, of our lives and of the material we take in.  Sometimes I refer to taking in too much as ‘over stimulation’ and that I need to take time to assimilate it (just how I work).  In a way, it’s an awareness of our every action in the present.

Well, that went down a rabbit hole, now didn’t it?  Hopefully you’re all still with me here.

I want to make sure that I continue to create.  Not just because I don’t believe I have a say in the matter.  But perhaps because I want to.  Because I want to share the stories with you.  I think, deep down under my neurotic self-doubt, that they’re worth reading.  If I can get caught up during editing and wonder what will happen next, maybe I can keep your attention for a while.  Maybe until the end of the story…

 

NEWS:

If you’re in the Ottawa area, I will have a table at the Ottawa Small Press Book Fair (http://smallpressbookfair.blogspot.ca) on November 25.  If you’re in the area, please drop by.  There will be a good crowd of publishers, authors and bookmakers to meet.  Plus, admission is free!

The Relief of Hearing ‘No’

 

I recently wrote a book that was supposed to complete my science fiction trilogy (*note: It has become a series more than a trilogy. This group of three books is focused on the same main characters.)  It was the first time that I’ve written a book without a reader for at least part of it.  No one has read this book to date.  As I began to edit and prepare for publication, this fact began to bother me more and more.  I had sent it out to people to read and generally the feedback was along the lines of “it’s good but I just haven’t had time and I’ll get to it next week for sure.”  Now, that’s completely fine.  We’re not all reading addicts and we all have busy lives.  My fear grew though as the same reasons happened repeatedly.  Was there something wrong with the book?
Last night, one of my readers was finally honest about the manuscript.  They said no, it wasn’t working.  They weren’t taken in by the story, not like they had been with the first two.  Now, let me point out that I’ve completely written the book by now and edited a major part of it.  But instead of feeling overwhelmed and devastated, I actually felt relief.  Okay, it wasn’t working.  I immediately began to think about how I’d written it and how to go about doing it better.  My only regret is that I didn’t catch this sooner.
I think some of my early fear and now relief is tied to how I wrote it.  Looking back on the piece, I was very focused on tying up all those loose strings.  Maybe I spent too much time telling and not enough time showing, a common fault in writing.  But the characters are still speaking with me and together, hopefully, we’ll figure out how to change this so the story can come back to life for my readers.
So, more than ever, if you are a beta/early reader for a writer, take a lot of pride in that trust.  Some writers absolutely need that feedback and it’s an essential part of the process.  And please always be honest.  You can say hard truths in kind ways.  But saying nothing doesn’t help.
As you can tell, there will now be a delay in the publication of the third book in the Pure Red Sand Series.  But you can still find the first two and catch up with Nadine and Sven while I try and make sure their stories come to a better end.
This post goes out to my beta reader for the third book.  They are very much appreciated.

Lost Nomad on a Literary Front

I lost a story the other day. Or at least I think I did. Or I never wrote it. All are possibilities.

I am a nomadic pack-rat. Yes, think about the consequences of that for a moment. In the last 11 years, I have moved twelve times. The longest I’ve ever lived somewhere is two years and during a year of that I was hardly ever home. Did I mention I have a “minor” addiction to books? Yes, ladies and gentlemen and those yet to decide, I have moved an awful lot of tattooed dead tree from one end of a country to the other and all over some cities. That’s a lot of transition. I guess it’s not surprising that I may have lost one story in recent memory. Perhaps it’s more impressive that I haven’t lost more.

So let’s take all that idea hopping in stride for a moment. Stories are the greatest part of my life. They always have been. I find escape in those black words typed in various fonts. I can see new places and lives. When I write them, I get to live them. I’ve been a man and a woman. I’ve been old and quite young. I have lived in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with bustling petticoats and vests and ties. I have been a captain on a spaceship and a mad woman hiding in a corner. I have put my everything into these people. Because if they are not real, if I cannot recognize them as friends of a sort, then how will others believe?

Maybe that brings us to the ideas of loss. How losing a story can shake my ground in a startling way. [Side note here: I have backed up things and printed things as often as possible. Organized and collected. I have also crashed three hard drives, killed two motherboards and wiped an external hard drive by turning it on. To say I have bad computer karma is an understatement. We won’t talk about the two floods of my office…] So, if you give parts of your soul to your creation, as every artist must, and lose it, how can you dismiss that? I don’t have an answer.

Maybe I’ll get lucky and they’ll come back to me, buried at the bottom of a box or in a forgotten back up. There’s always hope to see them again. But I yearn for the day when that won’t have to be a possibility. When all my work can be in one place for more than months at a time. When my packrat skills no longer culminate in a horrifying moment of “I own how many boxes of books?!” (Only because I won’t need to pack them again. You can NEVER have too many books)

So here’s to a disconnected ramble, to loss and rediscovery and to finding a real home for me and all of my fictional friends.

Where are my women?

Where are my women?

I wrote this once before and got tied up in trying to find the right links, the right proof. But that’s not why I decided to write this blog. It’s not about the rights and wrongs of an issue. Please go out there and discover that for yourself, find your own opinions. I want to talk about my reaction to what I found, the world I live in and the cultures I find myself immersed in.

I wanted to talk about my women. Actually I’ve wanted to talk about them since the beginning. I was just too afraid/intimidated by it. In case you are wondering, very little has changed. So here’s the story that started it all.

Or not.

As you may be aware, if you’re following this blog, I’ve been writing for over two decades. Starting with poetry, then short stories and eventually accidently writing a novel. I know all the reasons why this will most likely remain a hobby. I have my own collection of rejection letters. But it never occurred to me that this had anything to do with my gender. This is just a struggle that all writers face.

Last summer I realized that my favourite stories of space were usually written by women or featured strong female leads. That’s not really surprising. As a woman who writes stories of determined women and has largely worked in a male dominated field, I identify with them. So I went to the local chain bookstore with a mission. I was going to look at all the female authors and find a new character to enjoy. The key words here were all and disappointed. There were over twenty shelves of science fiction alone. All the female authors were five (not including the ones that were gender neutral).

Okay, I can be pragmatic. I lived in a relatively conservative community. It probably reflected the interests of the people. It sucked but it was understandable. Months later I found myself in the capital city of the country in a much larger bookstore…and faced the same problem. A little general interest research revealed that only 20% of published science fiction writers are women.

I don’t have a solution to what I see as a problem. Maybe it isn’t one, a reflection of population interests. It wouldn’t be the first time I was in a minority and I could be okay with that. What I’m afraid of is that there are women writers (and any other gender combination) who want to talk and aren’t being heard. I can’t be the only one writing their heart out on endless papers and screens. I don’t believe I’m alone out here.

“If you don’t see the book you want on the shelf, write it” –Beverly Cleary

What do you think?

 

 

Next time:

I’m hosting a special blog later this month. I’ve published two novels on Amazon through their KDP program. This is your chance to ask any questions you might have about those books or writing in general. I’ll do my best to answer them all. Go to the facebook page (www.facebook.com/mnegrijn) and leave a question under the post. I’d love to hear from you!

Old, But Filled with Potential

I keep everything that I write. Or at least I try to. I also try to keep everything digitally and in a physical copy. That doesn’t always work out. It generally means I have dragged boxes of paper across country and back. Some of these stories make me proud, many of them make me wince. But I can’t let go all the same.

You see, I think there’s always potential. Even in the worst “what was I thinking” story, there is a spark. Why else would I have written it? Stories may come with a flash of inspiration. They may be born of random thought. But they do not grow that way. They take time and cultivation and more than a little faith. Then you push them out into the world and hope that they succeed. That they are liked, even loved by someone. It’s a bit like raising a child I suppose.

I have written a lot of stories in the last 17 years. I have lost a few to floods and technology failures but the vast majority stay with me. And while I could wish to forget some of them, others never let go. I published my first book through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) program. This was a novel that came to light on a tiny island in the Atlantic Ocean and that experienced its growth alongside a masters degree that nearly broke me. But it came out in the end as one of my best pieces. It’s born of a short story. Just four pages of carefully chosen text written in childhood. The stories are not the same. But there was something about that world that I created, something about the strength of the characters and who they would become that stayed with me. They stayed and they grew into a book, into a trilogy.

I think it’s worth saving stories, no matter how much you love or are embarrassed by them. No matter who tells you they’re not worth working on. Because they have a spark in them that brought them to life and keeps them there. They are the result of your love and faith and that should never be discounted.

http://www.amazon.ca/Pure-Red-Sand-Expensive-Retreat-ebook/dp/B010IMLCV0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1435490457&sr=8-1&keywords=m+negrijn

https://www.facebook.com/mnegrijn

@M_thewriter