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.

 

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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!

A Plea to the People

I have been silent for a long time.  That’s partially my fault and partially the consequence of moving, of going to school once again and keeping up a part time job…oh yes, and writing.  All those words that need to be recorded.

This morning, something very scary happened when a certain person was elected to power in a very influential country.  I’m not suggesting how anyone should feel about that one way or another.  But as a woman, with LGBTQ+ friends and relatives, I am scared.  As a living being on this planet, I am scared.

But one of the things that came to me this morning, while I was feeling a mix of fear and sadness, was how important our voices are and will be in the coming days.  More than ever, we need our artists, our musicians and our writers.  So I implore you to speak out for good things, for a better future.  Speak out against racism, homophobia, misogyny and everything else that makes all human being less than what we’re capable of.

And stay hopeful.  Always.

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.

Q & A with the Author

A few weeks ago I asked my readers if they had questions they wanted to ask about my world on Mars (from the novels Pure Red Sand: An Expensive Retreat and Uncomfortable Truths) or about writing in general. I promised to answer everything. So while I had few questions, I hope you might enjoy the answers.

A little background first. The Pure Red Sand world is very loosely based on a series of short stories that I wrote while in high school. There are few similarities between them and the books I have completed but they were definitely the spark.

  1. How difficult was it to build the world for your characters?

I’m more of a character driver writer than a place oriented one. I knew my characters to some degree from the stories. I looked around from their perspective and described where they were living. As the story developed, I found myself writing and imagining more and more of it. I think they grew at the same time, piece by piece as my people expanded into the community. I just have to remember to tell my readers what it looks like because sometimes I forget that they can’t see what I do.

  1. How early did you know this was going to be a trilogy instead of one book? Was it fully conceived as a trilogy from the start?

I can’t remember if the stories were supposed to be a trilogy or not. I’m not fond of sad endings so I suppose when Sven went back to Earth, there had to be a second one. They continue to show up in the background in some of the other stories I wrote later but it’s a very different world than I created at the end of the novel trilogy. A roundabout answer but I can’t remember if the stories were conceived as a trilogy but since they are, it made sense to have the books follow the same general framework.

  1. Who was your favourite minor character and why?

I found this a hard question to answer. I think I can narrow it down to two. Karl in a lot of ways. I identified with his slow process leading to a revealing moment when achievement or failure happened. He’s a supportive person and I see elements of myself in him (not intentional). Robin to a lesser degree but she’s already demanded her own book. I don’t like Louise but I’m intrigued by her decisions, about her continuing impact on the story. She was never meant to be more than a couple of lines in the first book. Instead she grew and became real in a sense. They’re not perfect but no real people are either.

  1. Why are there no cats on Mars?

I can think of two reasons for this but I’m not sure which is more accurate. The first is that human life was so cheap there. It’s hard to see animals thriving. The other option might be purely logistical. In the first chapter of book 3, Nadine and Anna talk about shipping from Earth to Mars and Anna complains that it takes six months for anything bigger than a loaf of bread. I imagine she’s exaggerating but when food is scarce and everything is hard to come by, maybe it wasn’t practical. Or it could just be the weather.

  1. Given the ongoing discoveries by the Mars Rover, how do you see our views on Mars changing?

I don’t know that they will change in their essence. I think we’re all hoping to set foot on that planet in the future. We learn new things about it all the time. I was excited about the discovery of water there too. Who knows, maybe I haven’t discovered my own version of humidity collectors out there yet. Nothing that has been discovered makes my world any more or less likely to exist. So I’m following it like everyone else. Mars is a very cool planet, fictionally or in reality.

  1. What drew you to write about Mars?

I don’t really have a good answer for that. I didn’t want to write in a historical period at the time because I was reluctant to get tied down by facts. Building my world on Mars let me imagine everything. That’s been both wonderful and terrible.

  1. If your books were turned into a major motion picture, who would play the main characters?

This is such a hard question to answer. I have the vaguest notion of what people look like. I’m more intimate with the inside of their heads. But I did my best and I have come up with two names that sort of have characteristics of my leads. I think Angel Coulby looks a little like Nadine and Alex Pettyfer looks a little like Sven. Neither is exact but I’m not sure you would ever find a real person like the ones in your head.

 

 

That’s all I have. I hope you’ve enjoyed the questions and answers and that you drop back to visit the blog again. If you want clarification or more detail on anything you’ve read on the blog, comment or send me a message on the facebook page. All the best!

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!