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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A Bad Case of “Then What Happened?”

Have you ever read a book that was so good, it was like a drug?  That you’ve found yourself doing chores one handed so you can keep reading.  Putting the book down just before going out the door and with deep reluctance?  I love those stories and when they’re that good, I feel like you can go back multiple times and the magic will still be there.

As requested after my last blog post, a little sample of some of my work.  This is the opening to a small series of interconnected short stories called “It was Supposed to be a Dream.”  They’re currently published as a chapbook, volume 1 in “The Collected Words.”

I remember the night I first met him.  It was so late and I was closing out the coffee shop.  I remember being weirded out by the feelings I got off him.  I normally get nothing off the living because they didn’t need me until after death.  But he felt empty.  The kind of empty that is an endless pit compared to normal puddles.  I didn’t say anything although he looked at me strangely.  I brought the young couple in front of him some pie.  She was one of the self-proclaimed wiccans of the town and he was a straitlaced youth.  I felt bad for her because I could tell he was in it for the kicks.  She was loudly explaining how there was more to the world than we know.  So I tried to do the right thing and support her.

“You have no idea,” I offered.

“This is a private conversation,” she responded coldly so I backed off.  Maybe she was more in tune than I gave her credit for, maybe she saw what I was trying to hide.  Maybe she didn’t want me honing in on her date.  Life gets complicated no matter which way you walk.  I just remember how Michael turned suddenly at my comment and the eyes behind his sunglasses seemed to drill into my back as I returned to the counter.  He followed me there, standing in all his cold, empty glory.

“You can see them, can’t you?” he asked hoarsely.

I didn’t know how he knew but I just agreed.

“Good.  I need your help.”

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!

My Kind of Crazy

I have been a writer for twenty-three years. When I was fourteen, someone read my work, believed in it and encouraged me to take it seriously. I can’t remember if I’d even shown anyone anything but this woman (to whom I dedicated my first published novel) pushed me to go forward. I haven’t exactly looked back since and I hope she knows that she changed my life for the better. Sometimes it just takes one person.

I went to hear Joseph Boyden speak at Carleton University in Ottawa recently. I’d read his first book and it was beautifully written. Going to hear him speak, I was unsure of what to expect, maybe a lecture about the importance of historical research?

Instead I came “face to face” with a genuine man. It was an amazing experience and I wanted to share it with you. I want to talk about influential people and how they can make a difference. Boyden’s talk was personal, even in a room of several hundred people. I never felt like it was a crowd or that it was something he’d done too often. He spoke from the heart and about his words.

I’ve been afraid to talk too much about my writing process, or even too loudly about my books. I suppose for fear that my ability to write would fade or vanish. Boyden spoke about his process and I sat on the edge of my seat. He could have been speaking about mine. The movie in his head that he transcribes from shows a different program than mine but I am not alone. He talked about the characters in his head that spoke to him. Mine have long been loud and demanding, sometimes to my dismay. I also have no control sometimes and the best-laid plot points have to be quickly rewritten. But I do not speak of this because I am afraid of negative reactions from people or even the characters themselves. I am afraid that people might tell me I’m doing it wrong, or worse, that the characters might become silent altogether. Boyden assures us that this most likely won’t happen. There are no guarantees in life. But his ability to speak of it and continue to write brings me hope. He recommended ignoring our critics who say that we can’t or even can’t do it again. They can’t know. We need to be true to the work. His whole talk brought me hope, made me fall in love with words all over again.

One of things he spoke of hit home in an entirely different way. He told the story of trying to get a date with a young woman when he was in university. After two years of effort he finally asked, ‘why not?’ She said that he didn’t take his writing seriously. My first thought during that story was, do I? By her standards, no. By mine, I’m not sure. I’ve accomplished a lot, written four novels, almost five, in ten years. That’s not to mention short stories and poetry and all the editing that’s associated with being a writer. It’s never ending and sometimes overwhelming but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I don’t write every day, finding it difficult to make time with a part-time job and going to class. But despite two degrees, a diploma and learning a second language I think I’ve done okay. I am doing my best to stay true to those words, to the characters and to the essence of being a writer. I’m here to tell their stories, whatever they might end up being.

For More information:

http://www.cbc.ca/radio/unreserved/tradition-authenticity-and-the-fight-for-indigenous-identity-1.3281731/joseph-boyden-has-embraced-the-voices-in-his-head-1.3282686

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

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