Tag Archives: writing advice

Signal – what Korean dramas can teach us about telling a compelling story AND keeping you on the edge or your seat.

With this blog post, I want to continue my series of posts about what Asian dramas can teach us about storytelling. You can check out my first post about it here.

This time I want to use the example of Signal, an ongoing Korean drama that, so far, is the best example of a crime procedural done right. It tells us a compelling story which includes an overarching arc relating to the characters, but also the “cases of the day” so to speak and it manages to do so with so much heart and suspense that you can’t help but get invested in every case. More than that, it makes each hour long episode a heart-pounding, edge of your seat, adrenaline ride.

Signal, a Korean Drama by TvN.
Signal, a Korean Drama by TvN.

Here is a brief synopsis of Signal:

Park Hae-Young, a young profiler and detective in 2015, manages to connect with Lee Jae-Han, a detective from the past with the help of an old walkie-talkie. Together they try to solve cold cases.

That sounds intriguing, but nothing stellar, right?

Well let’s add some more details to that. The walkie-talkie only works at 11.23pm and stays on for about one minute. And it doesn’t do that every day either. Neither cop knows when the connection will be possible again.

Also, while time for Hae-Young is linear, for Jae-Han it’s not. The first radio transmission connecting the two detectives happens in August 2015 for Hae-Young and in August 2000 for Jae-Han. At that time, Hae-Young has no idea what’s going on and thinks this transmission is a giant hoax, but Jae-Han knows exactly whom he is talking to and even calls the present detective by name, like they had spoken several times before. The next transmission Hae-Young gets though connects him with a Jae-Han from 1989, back then just a rookie cop, and it’s Hae-Young’s turn to persuade the other detective that he is not pulling his leg.

Moreover, Lee Jae-Han, the cop from the past, went missing shorty after that very first (or very last, depending on the point of view) transmission in August 2000. His official file says that he had been under investigation for embezzling money and fled the country, but the more Hae-Young digs into that, the more he suspects that it was just a carefully crafted cover up. So this is the first mystery driving this series. What happened to Jae-Han and what can both cops do to change his fate?

And finally, any changes made in the past tend to generate a ripple effect that leads to unforeseen (and often disastrous) consequences in the present.

Butterfly effect.
Butterfly effect.

When Hae-Young warns Jae-Han about the location of the next victim of a serial killer, Jae-Han manages to save her, but because of that the killer accelerates his killing spree and 3 more people die that were alive in the unaltered version of events. And one of those new victims was someone Jae-Han liked.

When Jae-Han begs Hae-Young to give him some tips about a string of burglary cases that remained unsolved even in 2015 and uses those profiling tips to catch the culprit, the repercussions are even more severe – the culprit’s daughter dies in front of his eyes in the past and he goes on a revenge killing in the present that takes the life of another cop…

This sense of immediate repercussion adds urgency and suspense to the stories, because you never know if by messing with time, the protagonists will make things worse or better. They might save lives, but they might make it so that more lives are lost as well. So both have to choose just how much to reveal and how much to leave out during each of their radio transmissions.

Timey wimey stuff
Timey wimey stuff

What adds to the suspense of this series is the fact that all the cases, even the case of the day, are tied to the members of the cold case squad one way or another either by what happened in the past or by the ripple effect of the time-altering intervention, so the viewer can’t help but be emotionally invested in the investigation because all the main characters in this series have their own backstories and lives which we get only small glimpses now and then, but which make them more than just “member X of the cold case squad” but real people with their own problem, aspirations, and heartaches.

Take the very first case, for example. Fifteen years ago, a 10 year old girl was kidnapped from in front of her school and found dead a few days later. The culprit was never found and the statute of limitation on that crime expires in 3 days. This case is very important for Hae-Young, because he was the only witness of that kidnapping, because he was the girl’s classmate and happened to see a woman lead her away. He even went to the police station right away, but nobody would talk to a 10 year old boy. He came back year after year, but nobody was interested to listen to what he had to say. That case shaped his character – he became a profiler and a cop to right a wrong, but he despises cops he works with, because in his experience, they are more worried about closing cases quickly and looking good in the public eye than actually trying to find the truth. So he doesn’t mince his words and clashes with most of his colleagues. There is no love lost between him and the other detectives, even though his profiling instincts (and the help of a magic walkie-talkie) help them solve cases.

This is how you make a series that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let you go – engaging characters that feel like real people instead of walking labels, intricate and interesting story with stakes that are actually important for the characters, and a certain amount of unpredictability that is still consistent with the inner logic of this created world.

Outlines – When it’s time to throw the map out of the window.

Roadmap

So remember when I talked about the importance of outlines and that having a roadmap will help you get to your destination faster while writing the first draft… Yeah, well somethings things happen that throw a wrench into the well-made plan and you are left scrambling to put pieces back together. And they usually form different pattern in the end.

 

It’s like when you plan out a route to get somewhere only to get halfway and discover that the bridge is out. Now you are left trying to negotiate a myriad of backroads to get to your destination, and your GPS is out. Scary right? But admit that it’s also a bit exciting. Because just like driving, spending several months simply following along a rigid outline can become boring.

 

I know I was getting a bit tired of my well-planned out story when I finished Part 2 of Shadow Hunters and started on Part 3. And that’s when the writing gods threw a wrench in my plans and made my writing time exciting again.

 

It all started when a character whom I didn’t have any big plans for decided to not only appear early, but also to take an active role in the story.

 

When he showed up, I said, “Well hello there! What am I supposed to do with you?”

 

He smiled and blew up my carefully constructed bridge leading to the final destination.

 

So now I and the rest of the characters are stuck on the backroads of the story. We see the destination, but what stretches between us and shining light called THE END is terra incognita.

 

But you know what? I’m looking forward to my writing time again now. I know that I can still use some of the plot points and scenes I had outlined, but they will have to be arranged differently and probably have an unexpected outcome. But a lot of this Part 3 will be totally new. Who will live? Who will die? How will the situation be resolved? Shit, I have no idea now! How cool is that?

 Terra-Incognita

So this is my long-winding way of saying that while having an outline is important because it lets you really think your story through to the ending, sticking to it like glue can be a bad thing. Use it as a guideline, but never be afraid to step off the beaten path.

 

When a character starts doing something unexpected? By all means, let him! And cheer him on too, because chances are, he is giving you narrative gold. When a carefully planned scene suddenly reaches an unplanned outcome, don’t delete it and try to rewrite so that it fits your outline. Let it run its course and see where it leads. Even if it doesn’t quite make sense at the time, even if that means you will have to rewrite parts of the story you have already written down afterwards. Let it flow, because this is your story telling you how it wants to be written.

 

So throw away the map and jump into the unknown with a smile on your face, just don’t lose sight of the end game! You might meander a little and take a detour or two, but you will certainly find some hidden gems along the way.

 

Write on, my friends, write on.

WordCount

Evolution of a character or not all princes are jerks.

Paiting a new world, what's more exciting then that?
Paiting a new world, what’s more exciting then that?

Last week I talked about the importance of listening to your characters and letting them evolve. Today I thought that I would give you an example of that, since I had to let the characters take the reins in my current WIP – Shadow Hunters.

 

When I was outlining and plotting Shadow Hunters, I knew that my protagonist would be a prince. Not only that, but that he would also be a jerk. After all, this kingdom lives under absolute monarchy, which means the king and the royal family have a heck of a lot of power. On top of that, there is a rather rigid caste system with the royal family on the very top of the food chain.

 

So it made sense that a guy who was born with a golden spoon in his mouth and had servants cater to his every whim would grow up to be a self-absorbed and entitled jerk. So his initial character journey was to meet a girl from a very different environment, fall in love and slowly become a decent human being through a series of more and more staggering trials and obstacles.

 

With that plan in hand, I started writing my first draft and my protagonist immediately rebelled against me. He absolutely didn’t want to be a jerk. After fighting with him for the first three scenes of the first chapter, I threw the towel and let him drive the narrative. And I discovered some very interesting facts about my prince.

keep-calm-and-start-the-rebellion-2

Yes, Akemi’s family is all powerful and his father rules the kingdom with a firm hand, but Akemi himself is the youngest of five children. As such, he is so far down the inheritance line that nobody even considers him a contender. His eldest brother is the Heir in waiting destined to succeed to their father and has been trained as such. His sister is the perfect lady destined to be married off to form an alliance with one of the neighboring kingdoms. He could go into the military, but his second brother already beat him to it and he is, by all accounts, an exceptional warrior. And even the scientific field is covered with his last brother the genius inventor.

 

Akemi couldn’t even enter the clergy because there is no clergy per se in this world. And it’s not like he has a particular talent for anything. So in the eyes of his family, he is useless. He grew up seeing indifference in his parent’s eyes and annoyance from his eldest siblings.

 

On top of that, he learned at a very young age that no friendship is free. All the kids that wanted to be his friends in the past and even now that he is studying at the Royal College want something in exchange for that friendship. It’s either status, influence, money, or a way to get closer to his more influential siblings, and once they get what they want, they will jump ship in a heartbeat.

 

So Akemi learned to wear a mask of indifference and condescending aloofness and not let anyone close enough to see his real face. Heck, he doesn’t bother to learn the names and faces of most of his followers because they change from week to week. He remembers 3-4 that stayed longer than most and even gets attached to them more than he should, despite knowing that it’s a bad idea that would only lead to heartbreak.

Guidelines

So instead of a self-absorbed jerk, I discovered a decent and even rather kind guy who is just so lost and disillusioned about his place in this world that he hides behind a mask. His family thinks he is useless, so he ends up believing the same, and just kinda floats with the current, not making much effort to find a road to follow in life.

 

So his journey through the book transformed as well. Instead of being just a plain love story where guy meets girl and she makes a human being out of him, he embarks on a journey of self-discovery. Throughout the events of this story, Akemi discovers where his allegiances lies, what his dreams are, and how far he is willing to go to protect those he loves.

 

I don’t know about you, but I find that kind of story a lot more interesting than the one I had planed to write in the beginning.

 

Let your characters grow and evolve.

WordCount

For me, the two key ingredients of a good book is an interesting plot and engaging characters that I want to follow through the highs and lows and growing pains until the end of the book.

I must admit that characters come before plot for me. I am willing to follow well-made characters through even the most boring plot if I like them enough, because they become like friends to me to the point when I’m sad to say goodbye when the book ends. I think that’s part of the appeal of fanfiction – we readers love the characters so much that they loathe to let them go after the official story ended and invent new stories for them. Or explore side characters that the author didn’t have time or book space to delve into.

But I’m getting side-tracked here. I read a lot. A lot lot. And I’ve noticed that there is one thing that will make me drop a book like a hot potato EVERY SINGLE TIME – when I can’t find a single character, even a side character, to like.

I’ve also identified several reasons for that. I think that keeping them in mind while writing my books will make me a better writer, and reading about them might make you guys think about it as well.

 

  1. Characters never evolve past static cardboard cutouts.

We’ve all picked up a book where the characters have no personality, no life. They are just a bag of walking clichés, or they were created to fulfill predetermined roles – the brooding hero, his love interest who is sometimes a damsel in distress and sometimes a badass girl who nevertheless needs rescuing, the super bad who is bad because of reasons, etc. Or sometimes they are just bland and blah. When I read a book and can’t even picture what the protagonist looks like in my head and how he / she behaves, I’m not going to stick with the story.

Original by nord_modular on Flickr
Original by nord_modular on Flickr
  1. Characters are well-developed but they don’t evolve.

This one leave a bitter taste in my mouth every time because the stories begin with great characters that I usually get invested into, but by the time I reach about halfway into the book, I suddenly realize that they hadn’t grown up at all. That despite all the adventures, the difficulties, and the heartbreak they go through during the story, they stay exactly the same. There is no emotional growth. Worst case would be when they never learn from their own mistakes and continue doing dumb things over and over again.

By the time you realize that there is no forward momentum in the character’s evolution, you’ve already invested several hours into the book, so sometimes you feel compelled to power through to the end, often wishing you could get those hour back and spend them on something more productive.

 

  1. Characters that behave out of character because the author tries to fit them into a story they’ve outgrown.

When we set off to write a book, we usually have at least a vague idea of where this story is supposed to go and how we would like it to end. Problems arise when our characters take a life of their own and start telling their own story that sometimes clashes with what we had initially in mind.

What I’m about to say is my personal opinion only, but I think it would be a mistake to try and herd them back into the fold and bend them backwards in order to fit the story we had created. It’s like trying to put a square peg into a round hole. Even if you hammer it in there, it still won’t feel right.

That’s when otherwise very logical and well-written characters start behaving in such a manner that makes you scratch your head and wonder what they or the author was smoking. When a heroine how was known to use her head and analyze everything carefully and formulate a plan suddenly rushes into the enemy lair without even a weapon. Or when a cold-hearted jerk suddenly turns into a puddle of goo and declares his never dying love for the heroine WITHOUT any buildup to that change of feelings.

This is what makes me throw a book away in frustration or want to strangle the characters for suddenly becoming mere shadows of themselves. That’s where I feel most betrayed because I loved them how they were and all of a sudden I feel like they had been replaced by a doppelganger.

hourglass_parchment_quill_cover

 

I think that characters have to come before the story. If they are fleshed out enough, they will tell their own  story that will probably be even more interesting than what you initially set off to write. So let your characters speak. Let them grow and evolve. And when they suddenly decide to step off the road you had outlined before them, let them do that and follow them down that rabbit hole.  That’s where the most interesting conflicts lie.

Can I just hibernate till spring?

Lack of Motivation
Lack of Motivation

You might have wondered where I had disappeared to lately since I haven’t been very active on my blog: a couple of measly posts here and there, no book reviews to speak off… I’m very sorry about that! It’s just that I found it very hard to scrap up any motivation to do pretty much anything lately.

Call it winter blues, call it post-NaNo burnout, or even blame it on an insanely busy work schedule, but either way all I want to do is go into hibernation and wake up when it’s spring and everything is flowering again. And the sun doesn’t set at 5pm right when I get off work, when it even deigns to grace us with its presence at all. It’s only mid-December, and I’m already tired of the gray and the early dark. I want my sunshine back!

I think I wouldn’t mind winter as much if nature made up its mind and it was, you know, actually winter. Give me the cold weather and the snow and all the other good wintery stuff. But even that’s not the case this year! It’s 35 degrees one day and 70 the next, then back into the 40s, then oh, never mind, it’s 75 again.

Winter is coming or not

My poor rose bushes have no idea what to do about this weather, and the azaleas are trying to flower. I mean it’s 75 degrees outside today… on December freaking 15th! We had a bona fide summer thunderstorm yesterday. No wonder half the people at work are sick.

So since the beginning of December, I had been pretty much coasting on autopilot. I have a first draft to finish. I have several other books to edit, one of which I want to publish in March. I have books to read and review. I have good TV shows to watch. I have cross stitching projects that have been neglected for too long… Yet all I do when I get off work is sit and watch the grass try to grow in the middle of December while I listen to K-pop, and wonder if I should break out the riding mower or let the (hopefully) coming frost kill it. And then go to bed early because even that is exhausting.

But hey, the situation isn’t as dire as I made it sound! I’m still working on the first draft of Shadow Hunters, even though I went from writing 2k words a day to about 400-600 words. But speed is not as important as consistency, right? And the will to stick with it to the bitter end. I’ll get it done, winter slump be damned.

I have read two very good books this month as well, but I can’t post my reviews yet because they won’t be officially released until February 2016. I was lucky enough to get the ARCs (advance reader copies) of them through NetGalley. So look forward to those reviews (and books) closer to February.

I have also watched some excellent TV series, though I tend to favor Asian dramas lately. One of them, called White Christmas, stood out so much that I even posted a review of it a while back. And I’m planning on doing a marathon rewatch of it for Christmas, which only shows how much I liked the show.

So to paraphrase Granny Weatherwax from Terry Pratchett’s excellent Discworld series, “I aten’t dead.” Now can we just skip this whole winter deal and get on with spring?

i-atent-dead

NaNoWriMo – We are all Winners.

Yesterday, I officially won NaNoWriMo with 50,167 words and got my shiny certificate and blog button to display. Here it is, in all its awesomeness! (I know you don’t care, but it’s my blog, so I can post what I want on it :P)

Yay, I won!
Yay, I won!

So now I get to bask in a sense of pride and check out all the winner goodies on the NaNo site, but that’s not the biggest and most important take away from this crazy month. You know what is? The 50k words I ended up with by the end of this adventure. That’s 50k words more than I started with. That’s well over 1/3 of a brand new story done. Sure, they are half-baked and probably horrible and nowhere near publishing ready, but they are there – black words on a white page, concrete and real, not just a jumbled mess of “what ifs” and “maybes” in my head.

That’s why I have a strong belief that anyone who even attempts to do NaNoWriMo is a winner. Hold on, before you disagree! I will give you some valid reasons why.

 

  1. Any words on the page are better than zero.

Whether you managed to write 100k, or 50k, or 30k, or even 1k words during the month of November, it’s that much more than the zero you had before. Sure, they might be a steaming pile of dung, and the story might be going all over the place, and the characters digress and meander aimlessly through most of it, but hey, that’s what’s editing is for!

You can edit a bad page, but you can’t edit a blank page.

So to everyone who made an effort and put at least something on the page last month – CONGRATULATIONS! You’re a winner.

Hemingway

  1. You have a story, so what if it’s bad?

This derives directly out of the first point. Those words you threw on the page? Guess what, they form a story. So what if it doesn’t quite flow right yet? So what if the pacing sucks and there are way too many secondary characters, and you have several plot holes big enough to swallow the Titanic? You have laid down the foundation and even put some walls on this house, subsequent revisions will help decorate it to your taste and make it pretty.

You have a first draft, which is more than a lot of people will ever manage to accomplish. That sounds like a win to me!

 

  1. That’s what it takes to be a writer.

Guess what, for full-time writers, every month is a NaNoWriMo month! This is what it takes to make a career out of it. Even if you have a full-time job and write on your time off (like I do), you still write every day, even if it’s not 1.6k a day.  So NaNoWriMo is a great testing ground. Dreaming to become a writer? Take the challenge and see if that career is really something you can stick with for the rest of your life.  Whether you succeed or not, whether you decide to continue or look for something else, it’s still a win in my books. Because you decided to try it out instead of just dreaming about it and thinking, “I’ll write a book… someday.”

 

  1. Gotta have a routine.

Or to paraphrase Chuck Wendig, “Writers write.” You got to have a routine. You got to set a time every day dedicated expressly to putting words on the page. And you have to stick to that time no matter what. The sky might be falling, your house might be on fire, the latest episode of your favorite show is airing, it doesn’t matter. You have to stick your ass in that chair and put some words on the page. Even if your muse took a permanent vacation. Even if you don’t feel like writing today. Even if every word that falls on that page feels like a pile of poop. Keep writing.

NaNoWriMo forces you to do that for a whole month. In fact, it’s like an intensive boot camp for writers. No matter what, you have to sit down and put words on the page if you want to meet your word count. Day after day after day for 30 whole days. And guess what? After 30 days, you have established a routine that it would just feel natural to continue.

write

So I wanted to congratulate everyone who participated in this challenge. You are all winners! You have all learned something during that month. Now go forth and conquer!

As for me, the first draft of Shadow Hunters isn’t finished yet, so my NaNoWriMo will stretch through December and probably part of January. But that’s okay, because I have a routine for it 😛

NaNoWriMo is a battle of endurance.

NaNo-2015-Participant-Badge-Large-Square (1)

Well, we have survived the first week of NaNo. How about a big cheer? If you are like me, you spent these 8 days riding the excitement and doubling if not tripling your word count. As of today, my WIP stands 500 words shy of 20k.

Even if your word count is less than that or if you are behind the curve a little, don’t get discouraged. Remember that every words you write this month is one more word you didn’t have before that. Anything is better than zero.

But as we are entering the second week of this challenge, you have probably started noticing that your enthusiasm is waning. You might have hit a road block, or your story turned down a totally unexpected road, or you might just have gotten tired of writing it.  After all writing 1667 new words a day every day is hard and sometimes soul wrenching work. Especially if you also work full time, have a family that wants to be fed every day, and a house chores that won’t get done by themselves.

So now that the first rush is gone, it gets harder and harder to force yourself to sit down and write. If you’re like me, the sight of an empty page scares you when you stare at it first thing in the morning and the prospect to have to fill it with another 1.6k can seem daunting. That’s why I say that NaNoWriMo is a battle of endurance.

Don’t give up now. It doesn’t matter is you are ahead or behind on the word count, keep on writing. The only way you will win and, more importantly, get that novel written down, is if you work through the slump, and through the fatigue, and through the discouragement. All writers go through that stage at least once per first draft (and sometimes more than once) and the only way to get across the wall is to grit your teeth and keep climbing.

write

But I have a few pieces of advice to help you win this battle. They worked for me, so hopefully they will work for you as well.

  1. Pace yourself.

Don’t try to do all of your daily word count in one session, and don’t postpone that session until last thing in the evening before bed. You will be tired then and the amount of words you’d have to produce would seem more daunting than ever. Break your day into several smaller sessions instead: 400 words with your morning coffee, 300 more during your coffee or cigarette break at work, 600-700 at lunch, and all of a sudden the amount you need to do in the evening would shrink to almost nothing at all.

  1. Write down what you want to work on the next day.

Even if you’re pantsing your NaNo, I found that it helps to jot down a few thoughts before going to bed. Write down the next scene you need to work on, or just an inkling of who where and what will happen. That why the next morning you won’t have to frantically rake your brain about where your story is going. You would have a departure point to start on your writing.

  1. When you hit a roadblock, throw a wrench at it.

If you’re stuck in your story and have no idea what to do next, make something bad happen to your characters. Then buckle up for the ride and watch them scramble to overcome this new crisis. You might get so excited about this new turn of events that you wouldn’t even notice that you hit your word count for the day.

Lost

  1. Don’t give up.

Seriously, don’t. Nope! Forbidden! It’s your story. Nobody will be able to write it if you give up. So fight on, get to the end of it one word at a time.

 

Write on wrimos!