writing

On Writing: Spackle

Sunday, November 20

A lot of us are feeling woefully behind on our word counts right now and doing anything we can to move forward. One of my the things I rely on in these sorts of situtations is the literary equivalent of spackle.

Spackle, you might ask? You mean like that weird, white plastery stuff that you use to cover holes in the wall?

Yes. That is exactly what I mean.

Spackle when writing is just what it sounds like: a flimsy lick and a promise to get back to a spot and create something better. Stronger. Heftier. When I am in the zone and the story is unfolding before me, if I take too long in trying to capture the words, they’ll disappear before I can get them down. For me, always, the race is to get the story down while I’m in the heated flush of that writing zone. I can linger and dally over language all I want later, once the bones of the story are firmly in place.

Or, conversely, if I am having a hard time getting the words to flow, or flow in a jumbled, out-of-order sort of way, I use spackle to fill in the blanks so I can at least maintain my forward momentum. Sadly, this is the situation I find myself in this month.

Spackle often shows up as a set of brackets [like this] when I know I need a better word or simile but I don’t want to stop the writerly flow and search right then.

Something in his face made me [uneasy].
His eyes hardened like [sharp flat stones].

Sometimes though, spackle can be an entire action.

[Heroine and hero escape stronghold and make their way to safety. Will need to learn something on the road that will be critical to final solution/climax.]

As you can see, that’s no mere phrase or word choice, but an entire plot point that needs to be worked out.

The thing is, with rough drafts I know I will need a series of scenes in there. Some of them are showing up, right on cue, and others aren’t. But I still need a placeholder in this new draft I’m building, something to help me capture the pacing and the rhythm of the scenes. In that case, I spackle entire scenes, which go something like this:

[They arrive at court. Hero leaves her to talk politics with duchess’s advisors. She pretends she’s bored and wanders away. Uses this as excuse to eavesdrop on other’s conversations. Learns Count Z has returned, sees Lord X and Lady Y in tete a tete, wonders what they’re up to. Protects one of the serving maids against an overbearing baron, accidentally runs into the French ambassador, then herofinds her and invites her to dance.]

In that bit I list all the things from the various plot threads I’m juggling that I know have to happen then, in that scene. It also helps me capture in really broad strokes what the scene will encompass, while also giving my subconscious time to figure out more of the details and the nuance and even what the scene will actually be about. (Because clearly, from looking at that list, I do not have a clue. Yet.)

Oftentimes, I’ll figure out major epiphanies for that scene in subsequent scenes—scenes I never would have written if I’d let myself get totally stuck and stymied in one spot and not allowed myself to use spackle.

So if you aren’t currently using spackle, you might see if there’s a place for it in your writer’s toolbox. Because honestly? Sometimes a lick and a promise and a healthy dollop of spackle is what finally gets us to the end of this first, rough draft.

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On Writing: What’s In A Name?

Monday, October 31

For me, naming is a huge part of character. In fact, I cannot get very far in a novel until I have the correct name. I can be brainstorming and jotting down plot notes and some basic character sketching but until the true name clicks, I’m rudderless. The character doesn’t become real to me until that name solidifies.

The truth is, names matter. A lot. Both in real life and in fiction. So much goes into a name; parental hopes, ancestry, gender, ethnicity, and social status.

Because names carry all that weight, they can also be a hugely valuable tool in terms of world-building, setting an emotional tone, creating an integrated setting, and of course, characterization. The right name can also help anchor us in the story world, whether it be historical or contemporary or Other. Think how different the name Araminta is from Jennifer, or Carradoc is from Justin.

Plus all words have connotations, even names. The way they sound, feel, roll around in our mouths as we say them. All those elements affect how we perceive a name as well. As writers, we can use that, make it work for us. The names can do a significant amount of “showing” so we don’t have to waste time “telling.” [click to continue…]

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Someday, I will write a book that does NOT have a cast of thousands. Some day. But for now, that seems to dog me with every book I write. Here then, is a trick I devised to not only help me keep track of the characters, but to help the ones that need to be memorable BE memorable.

When one’s novel is populated by hundreds of people, not every one of them can stand out, nor should they. It would be exhausting and overwhelming. Even worse, it would risk diluting those characters who truly were important. It is perfectly acceptable to have some characters in one’s novel simply be part of the backdrop, the bodies that populate the room for realism’s sake while the true drama unfolds among a select handful of your characters. For those walk-ons and stand-ins, its okay, necessary even, to use quick broad strokes, perhaps even, dare I say it—stereotypes—since their actions have no bearing on the plot.

Because their actions have no bearing on the plot.

Those words are key.

[click to continue…]

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On Writing: Arcs

Thursday, October 20

Okay, I’m going to get all math-ish on you here, but bear with me a moment. And I say this as a person who hated geometry. (I liked algebra because it mimics life–in life we are always trying to solve for the unknown–but that’s the subject of a different post…)

In geometry, an arc is the path between two points. It is exactly the same with a character arc. A character arc marks the path between your character at the beginning of the story and your character at the end of the story. The change in the character does not happen all at once, it happens gradually over time, a series of small steps before the final climax when the character is remade into his new and improved self.

Think of a baby chick or a butterfly. It pokes and wriggles, attempting to free itself from the egg or the cocoon, until the very end where it makes a heroic final burst and breaks free. And as any naturalist will tell you, it is hugely detrimental to help the creature break free too early because it is in the actual struggle itself that the chick or butterfly will gain the strength to make that final valiant effort that frees it from it’s old trappings. That pretty much sums up a character’s internal journey and arc.

Here is a picture of one of my character arcs: [click to continue…]

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Let’s say you’ve spent some time and come up with this perfect conflict for your character. There is even something at stake if she fails. Go you!

Now think of a way to make it worse. Seriously.

I had an opportunity to attend one of Donald Maass’s all day workshops, and he asked this question. Many times. So often, we got to giggling, however, it was highly effective in driving home his point. Push the limits. Dare to take your character to the wall, then blow the wall away and take him even farther than that. [click to continue…]

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On Writing: The Basics–Speaking of Conflict

October 13, 2016

Conflict drives the story. It’s pretty much that simple. If you don’t have conflict on some level, you don’t have a story. The good news is, conflict comes in many shapes and sizes, flavors and colors. The bad news is, most people tend to avoid conflict, so it can be difficult to grab it with […]

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On Writing: The Basics–Plotting: Baby Steps

October 12, 2016

Okay, so let’s say you’ve figured out—kind of—what your characters motivations and desires. You even have a pretty good idea as to what is standing in their way—a bad guy, a raging storm, a stalking fae, a lovesick werewolf, whatever. Now how do you take what you know and shape it into a plot?

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On Writing: The Basics–How To Grow Plot From Character

October 11, 2016

In order to understand what actions will effect a transformation in your character, there are a few things one needs to know. Debra Dixon addresses this brilliantly with her concept of Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, and if you haven’t read the book, I highly, highly recommend it. She talks at length about needing to have […]

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On Writing: The Basics: Plots–Getting Started

October 10, 2016

So this week I’ll be talking about the writing basics–plot, character, conflict, and stakes. Again, this is all stuff I look at and try to work out in the pre-writing stage, so it’s fair game if you’re prepping for NaNo! So, if, as Julia Cameron says, transformation happens through action, then plot is simply the […]

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On Writing: Layered Characters

October 6, 2016

I thought I’d talk a little bit about revealing character versus having a character growth arc. I think, especially for middle grade and YA books, characters aren’t going to always have a huge growth arc because in childhood we’re always growing to new awareness, new life lessons, mastering new skills. In general, kids are more […]

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