Tag Archives: #writing

Raymond Reddington or a characters doesn’t need to be likable to be memorable.

Back before the whole NaNoWriMo madness started in October and I plunged headfirst into the first draft of Choices, I had started a series of posts about memorable characters and why I found them so. You can read the post about Sephiroth or the importance of a good antagonist, or A Shadow Hero – Severus Snape. Now that I’ve finished my first draft, I decided to continue this series.

Last week, we watched the first season of The Blacklist on Netflix, and yes, I know that I’m late to the party and that the show is almost through with season 2 already, but at least I got to bilge watch the whole first season at once.

the-blacklist-season-1-poster_600

And I must admit that I fell in love with Raymond Reddington. I think he is the best example of a memorable character that is, at times, less than likable. Red is not a good person and, more importantly, he doesn’t pretend to be a good person. He is a criminal. He has done a lot of questionable and downright horrible things in his life, and some will argue that he is no better than the criminals he helps the FBI catch and neutralize…

Yet we can’t help but feel attracted to this character. Not physically attracted,  mind you, though some might be, but emotionally enraptured by his cheer force of personality. I don’t know if it’s the excellent acting by James Spader or all the work the script writers pored into this character, but Red commanders all the attention every time he enters the room. He doesn’t have to do anything for that, he can just sit there and give his handlers that look and we all know that he is already several steps ahead of them in the situation.

So yes, he is a perfect example of how the viewer, player, listener or readers (because this is true to any medium, be it a game, a movie, a radio show or a book), can become emotionally invested in a character, even if that character is not exactly a knight in shining armor. In case of Red, he is more of a shadow cardinal.  He is smart, he is charming, but more importantly, he always delivers on his promises, whether this promise is to help you or to make you pay for double crossing him.

Reddington Quote

 

And I get a bit irritated with Liz and the rest of the special task force for constantly throwing this “You’re a criminal. You’re no better than the people you help us put away” argument to Red’s face over and over again. I mean duh, he never pretended to be anything else. He never pretended that his motives were altruistic.

Yet, somehow I could care less about what happens to all the other members of the task force, especially not Liz, though Donald Ressler starts showing some potential. But I want to know what happened to Red’s family. I want to know what pushed him towards the path he chose or what his connection to Liz is… I care enough to watch episode after episode even if I could give a rat’s ass about the rest of the cast.

And this is the true magic of a well made character – whether he is good or bad, the readers (viewers, gamers, listeners) care enough about him to follow his story to the end.

I’m a gamer and proud of it!

I have a confession to make – I’m a gamer. I have been a gamer since I was about 15, got my very first computer and a floppy with King’s Quest. I know that I’m supposed to feel ashamed about this, like it’s some kind of disease or addiction, and I’ve also heard that playing games was somehow beneath the “true” writers…

Well, let me tell you that this is a lot of bull. And I’m not ashamed. I love playing games, and I don’t see how that is bad. In fact, I think that games help develop our creativity and imagination.

In our day and age, there are numerous ways to share a story with the audience, and the novel is only one of them. In fact, I must admit that I have encountered some of the best-told stories not in books, but on TV or in computer games.

In fact, I think that those stories stay with you longer than those in books, probably because in a book, you are reading about a character living that story, but in a game, you are that character, so you are living that story yourself. This is especially true for the MMORPGs where you start by creating your own unique character that grows and discovers the world, and eventually becomes important enough to influence it as well.

That’s why I wanted to talk about a few of the games that I consider truly memorable, at least for me.

256px-Planescape-torment-box

I have played Baldur’s Gate (in all its incarnations) and Neverwinter Nights, but the game that remember the most is Planescape: Torment. I loved the story in that game and the grim, a bit depressing atmosphere. Imagine waking up in a morgue, with no memory of who you are and just a talking skull for a companion? Stumbling through this strange and alien world, trying to piece together your memories, meeting people who knew you before, and whose lives you changed, for better or for worse, and not being able to remember them? Yes, that’s Planescape: Torment.

Final_Fantasy_VII_Box_Art

Another game that still remains a favorite of mine is Final Fantasy VII. I have played all of the Final Fantasies, but the 7th one will always have a special place in my heart. It has a lot to do with the complex world and the engaging characters, but also with the best villain I’ve ever seen in games, TV or books. You can read my blog post about him, if you are interested. And I think that all the fans of Final Fantasy VII also need to play Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core, which is kind of a prequel, telling the story of Zack, Aerith, Sephiroth and what really happened in Nibelhelm.

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I am not a big fan of survival or horror games. I’ve never played Resident Evil or any of its clones, but there is one game that shook me to the very core and it’s Silent Hill 2. Maybe because the story behind it is not the usual “shoot them up” horror, and the town of Silent Hill, although full of monsters, is haunted by the character’s own feeling of guilt and regret. After all, you play this game as a man who received a letter from his long-dead wife and comes to Silent Hill to find her… And the soundtrack by Akira Yamaoka is the best I’ve heard in a video game before or since.

Another one of my favorites is Final Fantasy X. It’s a wonderful story of courage and determination, where the characters have to often make hard choices in order to save those they care about… I admit that it’s the last game in the Final Fantasy franchise that I liked. The rest of them were… not very memorable.

But all those games thought me something about how to tell a good story, or about how to create tridimensional and memorable characters, or that having a complex villain is essential for a good story. I am a better writer because of them, so no, I’m not ashamed that I am a gamer. I’m glad.

So, are any of you gamers as well? What games influenced you? Made you laugh, or cry, or pause and think about the meaning of life? Or just gave you a few hours of good time when you were so absorbed in the story, that the real world ceased to exist for bit?

The Outline is more a suggestion than a set of rules.

My second novel The Choices we make, is three chapters away from being done, at least in its first draft form, so now I can speak with the experience of having completed two full novels. And I’m saying to you that outlines are not set in stone. They are just a suggestion, a few road markers on the way from the beginning to the end of your story. Or, like Captain Barbossa would say:

Guidelines
The Pirates of the Caribbean are property of Walt Disney.

 Now the pantsers in the audience will probably yell at me, “I told you so!” while the plotters will grumble, so let me explain what I mean by that. I am a plotter. I find out the hard way that I simple cannot finish a story without having written down at least some kind of outline beforehand. All the novels I tried to “pants” lay abandoned somewhere in the 1/3 to 1/2 of the story, because I either wrote myself into a corner, or had no idea where my story was going. So I outline everything, from short stories, to novels. And with Choices, I went even further and did an in-depth chapter by chapter outline.

 

But I have noticed something interesting while I was plodding through my first draft. While I followed that outline pretty closely in the beginning of the book, I started deviating even before the end of Part 1, I only glanced at it during Part 2, and threw it out of the window completely in Part 3 because my book had very little to do with the original story idea by that point.

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If it had only happened with Choices, I would have called it a fluke and found another topic for a blog post, but when I looked back at EVERYTHING I wrote in the past year, I noticed a trend. It seems that I always throw my map away after the first leg of the journey and set off running happily towards the end of the story.

 

I don’t think it’s a bad thing (hence the title of this blog post), because when the time comes to deviate from the outline, I have spent some time with my characters already and I know how they will react and act, so I’m more comfortable with taking the back sit and letting them lead the story. But if I ever feel stuck or lost, I still have that map with the nearest road marker circled in red, so that I know where to stir my unruly crew towards.

 

Some of you might say that doing an extensive outline before sitting down to write the story seems like a waste of time if I throw two thirds of it away in the process. I disagree. By doing this outline, I already “write” this story once from the beginning to the end, and I can tell which parts don’t exactly work and need tweaking. So when I sit down and write my first draft, I usually manage to find a better way to tell that story: a better plot twist, a new and exciting way for my hero to get out of a dangerous situation, a more satisfying ending. This in turn makes the editing phase a lot less painful.

 

So what’s the conclusion of all this? I will still write extensive outlines for my projects, but I will never feel bad about deviated from them. In fact, if I manage to write a whole story that follows the outline to the letter, I will be extremely worried about its quality and probably spend longer on the editing stage.

 

And what about you guys? Are you a plotter or a pantser? How detailed are your outlines and how closely do you stick to them when you write your first draft?

Writing woes – the dreaded middle.

snoopy-writing

I have been diligently plugging away at the first draft of my new fantasy novel The Choices we make. I had started it as a NaNoWriMo 2014 project, but 50k words only took it to the middle of part 2, so I have been slowly adding words to it all December long. My goals is to finish it by January 15.

A week ago I have hit what I call the dreaded middle. It’s that state when you are already a long way away from the beginning of your story, where the idea was shiny and exciting and the characters spoke to you. But you are also equally away from the final resolution and those two wonderful words – THE END. You are in the middle, drudging through the mire of words with your final destination still miles away. That’s when I feel my motivation faltering.

When it happened for the first time while I was writing Of Broken Things, I panicked. I almost abandoned the story altogether. It felt like there was no point going on: my characters were flat and uninteresting, my story had plot holes so big you could fly a spaceship through, and I absolutely hated all the words I put on the page.

Good thing that I turned to the internet writing community before I tossed my unfinished draft out of the window. Because I discovered something both scary and reassuring. Yep, both at the same time.

Lack of Motivation
Lack of Motivation

I have discovered that everyone experiences something similar somewhere during their first draft. Not exactly at the same place in the draft as I am though. Some stress out about the beginning, while their story is not yet fully formed and the characters not yet defined. Others hit that mire closer to the end when the story is almost done and the thought of wrapping it up neatly because daunting.

It’s scary because it means that no matter how many books you write or how successful you are, there will still be days, weeks, or even months, when you will absolutely hate your draft. Even if it goes to become a best-seller, there would have been a period when you felt like putting words on the page was equivalent to shoveling crap. And then it will happen again with the first draft of the next book, and the next, and the next…

But it’s also reassuring because Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, of John Scalzi go through the same pains and doubts time after time. That means that the draft you feel like tearing into tiny scraps might not be as horrible as you think, that this feeling is probably inherent to the creative process. I don’t know about you, but discovering that even successful writers have those doubts motivates me to keep going.

I hit exactly the same roadblock in the middle of The Choices we make, but this time I knew it would happen, so I didn’t panic and I didn’t let it deter me from writing. So even when the fatigue sets in, when the motivation hits the lowest mark ever, and I can suddenly come up with a thousand things I can do instead of writing, I force myself to put my butt in the chair and my fingers on the keyboard. I put words on the page. Maybe 400, maybe 600, or 1000 on a good day. I don’t look back, I don’t re-read. I press on.

As a result, I’m one chapter away from finishing Part 2, and I’m glad to say that the fog is finally lifting! I left the dreaded middle behind. I can see the road to the finish line. I feel excited and motivated about my book again!

Finish what you start!
Finish what you start!

So here is a question for my fellow writers. Do you experience the same symptoms during your first draft? When does it occur? The beginning? The middle? Closer to the end? Or more than once during the creative process? I want to hear from you!

NaNoWriMo – you reached 50k, now what?

There are only 7 days left until the end of NaNoWrimo, and some of you can almost see the finish line. I know I can. Sitting at 43k after Sunday’s writing session, that finish line finally seems within reach.

Winner 2014

This will be my last NaNo-related post for 2014, so I wanted to talk about what to do AFTER you have done your victory dance, gotten your cool NaNoWriMo winner certificate, and took advantage of winner discounts with various sponsors (Scrivener is definitely worth buying by the way, especially at 50% discount).

So this post will be about the Do’s and Don’ts of life after November 30.

DON’T stop writing. Unless you are writing for the young adult or middle grade market, your novel is probably not finished at 50k words. The standard length for a novel is anywhere between 80 and 120k. Or maybe you’re the next George R. R. Martin and your novel will be more in the vicinity of 300k. The point is – don’t stop now. Keep on putting your story on paper until you reach THE END.

DON’T self-publish or send your draft to agents on December 1st. You have finished your story. It’s a big accomplishment. But trust me when I tell you that your story is far from being publishable. This is your first draft. It’s only half-baked. It needs to rest in a dark corner before being put through the fires of editing and revision.

Blue blood on the page!
Blue blood on the page!

DON’T start editing your draft on December 1. You are too close to your draft right now, too involved. You are still living in the story. Put it aside. Let it rest. Forget about it for a month or two. Come back to it with fresh eyes. Read it as if you weren’t the one who put those words on the page in the first place.

DO take time to celebrate. Congratulations! You wrote 50k words in 30 days – that’s a huge accomplishment! So go and celebrate. Pop that champagne bottle, open that box of chocolates you’ve been saving, go party with your friends. You have earned it.

champagne

DO keep writing. You don’t have to continue careening at the mad speed of 1667 words a day anymore, but don’t stop writing just because NaNo is over. Finish your story. Put it aside. Then start a new one. And another one. And the one after that.

DO take the time to edit your novel. The road from the first draft to the published novel is long and difficult. There will be many revisions and rewritings before the monster you created is ready to be unleashed on the unsuspecting public. Take your time. It will take as long as it needs to. Better make sure that you made your novel as good as it will get than hurry up and published a half-baked product and deal with negative reviews.

Not over

These are some of the advice I took from the people on NaNo forums after NaNoWriMo 2013, and they served me right. So I thought I would pass them on to my readers. But the most important advice  have is:

NEVER STOP DREAMING.

If you want to pursue this crazy career, then go for it. Write, write, write, and write some more. Love the process, with both its easy and its painful days.

And be proud of yourself- you survived NaNoWriMo!

NaNoWriMo – we are halfway done!

pen-and-paper

We have officially rounded the bend on this year’s NaNo challenge. It’s all downhill from now on. Some of you might be doing great and rushing through that word count with the finish line getting closer and closer at NASCAR speed. But for some, this is the most treacherous part of the journey, when the fatigue sets up and motivation flags down.

You have been plodding along, struggling to meet your word count for over two weeks now. Sometimes you were successful, sometimes not so much. And if you are behind on your word count for some reason, the realization that the number of days you have to catch up is limited can be extremely demotivating.

Or you could be experiencing another symptom: you suddenly feel like what you wrote is utter useless crap. Your writing is flat, your characters are not interesting, or worse, your story is not worth telling. I know that feeling. I’ve experienced it last year. I even wrote a panicked post about it.  It got so bad that I was about to toss everything into the trash and call it quits.

PanicAttack

My NaNo novel and my writing career was saved by one of my writing buddies who told me that this feeling was totally normal, and that all writers experience it at one point or another of their first draft. She also send me the link to a pep talk Neil Gaiman wrote for NaNoWriMo back in 2007 and told me to read it before I did anything drastic like pressing DELETE on my computer and tossing my writing dreams out of the window.

I read Neil’s pep talk and I found it very motivating. The words that resonated with me the most were these:

That’s how novels get written.

You write. That’s the hard bit that nobody sees. You write on the good days and you write on the lousy days. Like a shark, you have to keep moving forward or you die. Writing may or may not be your salvation; it might or might not be your destiny. But that does not matter. What matters right now are the words, one after another. Find the next word. Write it down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

So I gritted my teeth and kept on writing, no matter how much I hated my manuscript by that point. And you know what? It got better. I wrote a few scenes I thought were rather good; I got excited about my story; the characters started speaking to me again; and I managed to get to the finish line. The result  was the first draft Of Broken Things, which is far from being perfect and still needs a ton of editing, but at least it’s finished.

Hemingway

So I want to do the same thing my writing buddy did for me last year and motivate you today. If you feel like tossing your novel into the trash and giving up – don’t. Go read through the wonderful pep talks we have on the NaNoWriMo site. Talk to your writing buddies and ask for support. Stop by the forums and share your doubts. But more importantly, stick around for a day or two more, write a few more words, start that scene you had been looking forward to write, even if it doesn’t happen until several chapters later. Or introduce a brand new character, or lead your story in a completely different direction.

I am convinced that you will get your mojo back and actually looking forward to the few days we have left before the end of November and NaNoWriMo.

And finally, let me leave you with this post by Chuck Wendig called On the Detestation of your Manuscript: an Expedition into the Dark, Tumultuous Heart of Authorial Self-Hatred. Be warned that Chuck uses a lot of naughty language, but his stuff is usually very funny and motivating.

And with that, write on, wrimos!

NaNoWriMo – things I’ve learned after week one.

Participant-2014-Web-Banner

We have officially survived the first week of NaNoWrimo and (hopefully) even managed to put some words on paper! This is a big first step and if you are still hanging on (and still writing), a small celebration is definitely in order. This is the first important milestone in our NaNo journey.

For me, this NaNoWriMo is not really about discovering whether I can write 50k words in a month. I know I can, because I have already done that last year.

NaNo 2013 was all about  nervous excitement at the challenge laced with a lot of doubts and “oh my god, what was I thinking when I decided to do that, and 1667 words per day is impossible!” moments. NaNo 2014 is more about refining my writing process and discovering what methods allow me to be more efficient when writing my first draft. So, this year I try to pay attention not only to what I write, but also how I write it, and note things that help me write faster and those that hinder me.

So here are a few conclusions I came up with after week one.

  1. Detailed outlines are a lifesaver.

During NaNo 2013, I had a general outline of my novel, arbitrarily separated into 3 parts. I had only put down some major points and decided to fill out the blanks as I went. As a result, my first draft contained a lot of backstory, side stories, and meaningless wanderings. I never got stuck per se, but there were days when I meandered through the story with no clear idea how to get to the next big plot point on my list.

Original by nord_modular on Flickr
Original by nord_modular on Flickr

I can tell you that editing that first draft is an absolute nightmare. I have only managed to wade through Part 1 and started on Part 2, and I have rewritten 90% of the draft.

This year, I spent the whole month of October writing several outlines for my NaNo 2014 project. I had a general plot outline, I had my characters bios and backstories and I had a chapter by chapter outline. Yup, I have written a 15k words, very detailed outline of my whole book.

The result is rather impressive – my WIP is has broken the 20k milestone today, and I haven’t been stuck even once so far. I also find it easier to get into the writing mood each day when I know exactly what scenes I will have to write.

2. Practice might not make everything perfect, but it certainly makes things better.

When I foolishly decided to participate in NaNo 2013, I had no clue what I was getting myself into. I had never tried to write consistently for any prolonged period of time. So of course I struggled! Some days coming up with that daily 1667 word goal seemed almost impossible. The most I could manage in one sitting was between 500-600 words, after which my brain would go into meltdown and need a few hours to recuperate.

WordCount

I have been writing every day for the past year and building up my “literary” muscles, so to speak. So now my brain can produce 1000-1400 words in one session before the critical meltdown, which makes meeting the daily goal suddenly so much easier.

Plus whenever I feel like slaking off, this annoying little voice in my head starts nagging at me, “You managed to meet your word count last year, even if you had to struggle for it. You can do better than that this year!” Maybe I should try to lock her in the basement along with my inner editor next time?

And I saw another aspect of my writing in which practice really makes a difference. Not only do I write faster now, but I also write cleaner. I have a clearer idea of what I want to put on the page, and I manage to come up with the words I need much quicker than a year ago. So hopefully, this will make the editing process much less painful later on.

  1. Planning ahead is essential.

NaNo 2013 was a success for my writing life, but a bit of a disaster in my everyday life. I was so absorbed in the writing process, that I didn’t have time for anything else. Between my day job and NaNo, the month of November 2013 went by in a blur. I think my family had started to forget how I looked like by the end of it, because I would come home from work, grunt an unintelligible greeting, and disappear behind my monitor, dead to the world.

This year, not only do I have a lot more responsibilities at work, which require more of my time and attention, but I also have to update this blog, providing new interesting content every week, and I have a novel to write.

So I have to plan ahead, use every free minute of my time to keep up with everything. I have succeeded so far, and I’m not even too frazzled yet. But it’s only been a week, so we will see if I’m still as organized and optimistic by the time Thanksgiving comes knocking at my door.

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Conclusion:

One week down, three more to go. Keep on writing, wrimos and remember that it doesn’t matter if you are ahead on our word count, just on the money, or desperately behind. You are here, you are making an effort to put words on the page and to create something beautiful out of nothing. That in itself is already an accomplishment!