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Deciphering the Unwritten (Unpublished?) Word

To Start a Plot, Start Walking

posted May 8, 2018, 12:34 PM by Ben Kreucher

The plot of a book is a lot like taking a walk. As you start out, you might know where you're going and how to get there, but you don't know what you'll see along the way. A good plot gives you clues to your destination, some even point you toward it. It seems to take forever to arrive where you're going. But the way back home takes almost no time at all. Even though it's the same distance. For some reason, I like to walk home rather than walk toward some destination.

Even walking around the block seems to take longer until I reach the halfway point. Then, it's easier, I walk faster, and soon I'm home. It hardly feels like the same distance. 

Plots are the same. For me, I know where I want my characters to go, I start them in the right direction and they know how to get there. But once they reach it, the story is mostly over and going home, the wrap-up, flies by. Loose ends are tied up, some questions might be left unanswered, but nothing glaring or major. And the journey home, though it might be the same distance, feels shorter.

Along the way, as I walk, I notice things. A permanent marker discarded along the side of the road. A frog carcass baking in the heat. Where the sidewalk ends on one side of the street and if it begins on the other...even if there's no crosswalk or discernible reason why. Standing water. Stagnant drains. Construction. Houses for sale. How heavy the traffic is. 

As my characters journey, I notice things too. Where they stop for meals or rest. What signs, omens, or portents distract them. What adventures and quests meet them along the way. And I learn more about my characters, what they like, how they react to different stimuli, why they make a certain choice, etc.

Writing, like life, is a journey. The destination may be to reach "The End", but don't lose sight of the things around you while walking toward that distant goal. Take time to explore, especially in the first draft or two. You never know what you might find. You can always cut later. That's why writers edit.

Character Descriptions

posted Mar 19, 2018, 2:27 PM by Ben Kreucher

So, I've gone through a few character descriptions, so by now you're probably able to write something like:
She's smart, kind, enthusiastic, and generous. She gives great advice and doesn't judge. She listens without forming a response. She's beautiful and strong, inside and out. She's passionate and compassionate, but fierce like a mother bear, especially about her dog. She opens up to people slowly because she's been burned before. But she's more loyal than most. She's driven to be the best in all she does. Yet outshines everyone. They either try to catch up or give up as she laps them. But sometimes takes on too much to appear more competent. She wants to crash through her limits instead of working to expand them gradually. She's constantly learning, improving, and bettering herself. She knows she's not a prize to be won. She demands respect and attention, but if she doesn't get it, she seeks it until she does. And occasionally, that quest consumes her thoughts. Instead of confronting problems head-on and making waves, she avoids until she has to admit a mistake. She's nerdy and witty. Charming and polite. Honest. She doesn't always ask for help when she needs it, but she's working on it. She's competitive and works to improve herself constantly. She's not as confident as she could be because she doesn't see how amazing she is.

Okay, but now that you've got a character, how do you describe her? Green eyes, brown hair, average height, slim. That's boring. Why not have another character compliment her? Something like: "There are times when you literally take my breath away, then you put on makeup and there are no words." doesn't really work. Even if it's a great line for a Valentine's Day card.

This: "She had a kissably cute nose that perfectly fit her face. Elegant and graceful. Like a swan sleeping on a pristine, glass-smooth lake. The orange red glow of sunrise just peeking above the dark olive green trees." might be purple prose. But, again, would work for Valentine's Day.

Maybe: "Her chin daintily pulls away in an adorable, yet heartbreaking way, like it's afraid to be touched because it's been hurt before. Yet, it still braves the attempt." It's okay, still a bit much...

I suppose it just depends what sort of relationship you want the character describing her to have with her. If he wants to win her heart, those would definitely fit. If he wants to boost her self-confidence, they might help. Might not, if she doesn't believe him. If he's just her best friend, she might like it or she might find it weird. Hey, it's your story, get creative and see what happens.

"I could get lost in her eyes. Like olive forests teeming with untold adventures. Mirth captured in an instant. The searing heat of anger that cuts sharper than any knife. Yet I'd brave that fire for a glance my way." Definitely use that on Valentine's Day.

...Unless she has brown eyes. 

You could try, "Have you ever gotten lost in someone's eyes and felt like you were drowning? You resurfaced after days, gasping for breath, but it's only been a few seconds. That's why I can't look at her."

New Year, New Character Sketch

posted Jan 10, 2018, 2:41 PM by Ben Kreucher

Oh wow, it's been a while. I guess the holidays really caught up with me. I've been busy typing away on another story. Pounding the keyboard into submission while writing and editing. Trying to hone my ideas into a rough shape, a great plot, fun characters, and surprising twists.
Well, it's a new year so I'll continue something old and write another character sketch. 

She's a broken woman with neglect and abuse in her past. Having been in a controlling relationship once, she never wants to repeat it. She hides behind a facade of self-confidence; hoping to fake it long enough to actually find it. Except, it isn't a mask. If she ever realized it, she'd be truly powerful. Breathtaking, she comes by her charm naturally and has an unabashed love for all things nerd.
Still, she flirts, seeking attention from anyone and everyone. Yet, when she hooks someone, she doesn't know what to do. All too aware that last time she allowed affection close, it bit her. So, she teases and manipulates, hoping to find power and worth in the misery of others. For, sadly, it's true that misery loves company and if she can make someone feel worse than she feels, she can gain some semblance of power.

What do you think? Have you met someone like her? Would you want to? How would you react if you did? How would your favorite characters? Can you see a story forming around her?

Character Sketching 101

posted Oct 15, 2017, 7:07 PM by Ben Kreucher   [ updated Oct 15, 2017, 7:24 PM ]

Character sketches are a great way to get to know a character you're writing about. From the protagonist to the antagonist, from the love interest to the comedic relief, some people would advise writers to sketch out all their characters, major and minor. But how?

There are a plethora of forms online to find and fill out.

Personally, I don't really do them. I like to let the characters blossom on the page as I write them. I suppose that makes me a pantser in that regard (I also don't really outline. Just briefly or as I go to keep track of events). But plotting has its place too, don't get me wrong. Knowing how a story will develop is just as crucial as understanding how a character will react in a given situation. After all, if you're putting them in trouble, you should know how they'll get out...or at least how they'd act under stress, under pressure, when things are going smooth, and when they're bored.

Sometimes, you can even take inspiration from the people in your own life. Perhaps take a deep, long look at one person and write what you see. It takes an authenticity of friendship, bravery to really delve into a person, and time invested, but it won't be a waste. Or, you could mash two or three or more friends together to create a composite character that expresses the best and worst of some of them. Either approach is good. One just makes a better birthday present. I think everyone likes to been seen, not just noticed.

People are more than hair color, skin color, eye color, height, weight, age, and gender.

You never really know what you know or don't know about a person or a character until you write it down. Just let it flow out. Give yourself free rein. Write as if no one will ever see it.

For example:
A quiet sadness lingers just below the surface, yet it's tempered by grit: a determination to do better to be stronger than the day before. That's not masquerading as false bravado; that's the only kind of strength we're ever given. Yet, not many people realize it. There's laughter in her smile and it dances in her eyes. There's a joy bubbling deep that longs to burst forth yet remains contained and controlled for the proper moments. A prim and proper lady to her core, she has impeccable manners. Soft-spoken, but not a doormat. Calm and even tempered, but a fierce friend and defender of her children. She has an understanding of worry and what a mother can bring from her own experiences and her own mother. She longs to love someone and the waiting frustrates her, but she doesn't want to just dive into anything or anyone. It's not that circumstances need to be perfectly aligned before she moves, rather, she knows her worth and isn't willing to settle for anything less than spectacular. Smart and kind, she isn't into a lot of nerdy things but she's quick to laugh, quicker to compliment, and rarely sarcastic. 

Is that a character you'd like to meet? Can you see a story forming around her? Do you know how she'd react if she fell into a pit of snakes? What if someone threw her into one? What else do you need or want to know before starting? Can you guess her favorite holiday?

Finding the Hero

posted Aug 22, 2017, 7:05 AM by Ben Kreucher

It's easy to know a good hero from a poor one. The protagonist's journey defines him. If she isn't on a journey, the reader can't experience the emotional growth; there's no connection and therefore no reason to continue reading.

In a story, if a person suffers brain damage, the next scene doesn't show them recovered and giving a public speech. If a person breaks their legs, the next scene doesn't show them winning a marathon. The journey is more important than the destination.

The journey shows the heroine's heart, her character, her spirit. We want to see it. We need to see it. It helps us understand something about ourselves, something we carry yet hide from the world. It isn't that we want to remain broken, but becoming whole is a journey of many steps.

The most compelling stories don't have the protagonist overcoming every obstacle. The protagonist must wrestle with demons--in the fantasy genre, that might be taken literally--battle back from defeat, and persevere sometimes against great odds.

We want to see all that. We don't want to be told, "Percival went out to slay the dragon. On the way, he lost his squire to a hungry bear. After many days and many obstacles, finally, Percival arrived at the dragon's cave. The maiden inside screamed. The dragon roared. Percival slew the dragon. The knight returned the lady to her home." That might be the outline for a story, but it's not a story. 

There's no depth, no character. No one cares whether Percival succeeds or fails. We don't see Percival's reaction to his squire's death. We don't know how the knight slew the dragon. We don't see the journey, only the victory. It seems too easy and the story becomes a hollow shell.

We want to know how the hero grows because we want to grow. Maybe we don't all want to be knights, but everyone longs to be the hero of his own story. No woman simply wants to be the damsel in distress. She isn't content with that. No man desires to remain on the sidelines of the big game.

Yet, we allow ourselves to sit on the couch of our own lives. We've benched ourselves because of fear or insecurity or a million other reasons. We should take one step today toward the best version of ourselves. That's what our favorite heroes from literature do.

The most memorable protagonists don't follow a straight line. They falter and fumble and fall, but never give up. They keep moving forward, keep striving toward a goal no matter how far away it seems. They may be patient, they may be relentless, or they may just want to prove to themselves or someone else that they can. There are a variety of motivations that drive the heroine along her journey and sometimes they change. Additional things may become important and may be added to drive her, but always at the center is the main motivation that guides everything she does.

Nail down that and you've got the beginnings of an awesome character that will compel people to keep reading and (hopefully) inspire them.

Squeezing Out Words

posted May 22, 2017, 11:06 AM by Ben Kreucher

I often find myself sitting in front of a blank screen, staring. The cursor blinking in its vertical, accusing fashion. And I wait, knowing there's something that wants to take shape here. I just need to form it.

A potter can mold clay, a sculptor can carve wood or stone, but a writer can only crumple paper (or make airplanes {or origami [but I can't]}). So, the cursor blinks. And waits. The page speaks.

Or doesn't.

The day drifts away while I gaze into the snow. The blank wall of while. The words come when I stop caring. Stop wondering who'll read them or how they'll interpret them. I just allow myself to breath and the words flow freely like a river through a crack in a dam.  Until there's none left. 

Nothing.

Just drips from a sponge. I wring and wring, but it's gone dry.

And so, I've spent my last bit of energy. The moment passes. The story still rattles in my mind; somewhere. Running. I need to hunt it, chase it, grasp it. Control. 

Skittish stories drift away unless I'm careful, stealthy. Ideas, once caught, stay. Permanent. Ready and willing to be used. Excited, yearning for more smiling faces.

But most only see the inside of my computer. Waiting. Hoping.

A Different Spin

posted Apr 24, 2017, 7:19 AM by Ben Kreucher

I've heard and read a lot of writing advice. Haven't tried it all, but I've let it swim around in my brain and marinate. Well, recently, for Lent, I thought I'd try and finish the novel I started and let sit while I picked at its bones. As Easter approached, I begin to get queasy. Nervous I wouldn't reach the coveted "End".

So, I fell back on some advice I ready a while ago and was repeated to me during the last week leading up to Easter Sunday: write the scenes you want to write and fill in the gaps later.

The problem I kept coming back to, while writing, was that scenes would bounce into my head and distract me from the one I currently tried to write. Instead of forcing the intruding scenes onto the back burner, I wrote them. It left me with an interesting manuscript.

The rough draft was finished before Easter. I reached "The End", but the arbitrary deadline I had set for myself. Now, I just need to polish it, edit it, and connect the dots to make it into a first draft. Then, I'll consider letting it sit on a shelf, pass it along to Alpha Readers, and let my brain move away from it to focus on something else. That way, I can look on it with fresh eyes and not feel so disappointed when people criticize it.

Then, I can start the second draft and incorporate those comments with a calm mind. Hopefully, making the story better by cutting my ego out of the process.

Unblocking the Writer

posted Mar 1, 2017, 6:54 AM by Ben Kreucher

A lot of writing advice tells you to write every day or write even when you're uninspired. And that's great. You want to build a habit of writing. It should be woven into your lifestyle, that way, it's harder to break than biting your fingernails.

But some days, I just don't. I don't want to write. I'm busy. I'm lazy. Usually, it's because I lack inspiration or I'm in the dreaded "edit" phase. When that happens, I've found the best cure for me is to step away from the computer screen. Staring at the blank page all day can get frustrating (plus, there are a ton of distractions waiting for me within reach of a few keystrokes). 

Writing by hand frees my creative process from whatever blockage or chains have suppressed it. Sitting down with notebook and pen and just writing without caring what I write relieves whatever pressure I've put on myself to "be excellently creative" (whatever that means).

Even just jotting down notes or story ideas helps.

Too often, I think that I put so much pressure on myself to write a perfect first draft. Probably because then I can fool myself into thinking I won't need to edit it. But, the truth is, it's just a rough draft. Get the story out, then go back and reread it for continuity errors, spelling errors, grammar mistakes, and whatever else needs ironing out. The hardest part is reaching "The End".

...Until you have to do it 700 times for the same story. But, don't think about that. Just keep writing. Find the story you want to tell and tell it. Once you reach the end, you can start figuring out how much you hate it. (Only have celebrating that you finished.)

A Lesson Learned From the Latest Season of The Walking Dead: Character Development

posted Jan 20, 2017, 8:06 AM by Ben Kreucher

This season on The Walking Dead started with a bang...or rather a splatter. We lost some pretty long standing characters. Characters whose deaths left big impressions on the remaining Alexandrians. Unfortunately, that means that it also left large shoes to fill as far as the heavy lifting of emotions and plot.

Some of the remaining characters just haven't gotten as much screen time as others. Therefore, we, as the audience, aren't as connected with them. Their current struggles and potential deaths aren't looming in the back of our minds with any sort of dread or urgency. One character, I forgot was still alive on the show until he turned up in a later episode. 

Perhaps I'm just weary from the way the show has run us through the emotional ringer, but I don't think that's it. I honestly feel that the characters that remain (minus a select few) just don't have the weight to drag us along with them. They can. First, however, we need to learn more about them. Once we get to know them over the course of a half-season or so, they can die with appropriate gravitas.

That's why it's important to invest time and emotion into your characters. You want your readers to relate to the characters, to know them like they know their best friends, and to want them to succeed. Without that, a book, movie, show, or play will fall flat. Any story without a connection to the audience can't succeed (with, probably a few exceptions).

Your narrative, and mine, needs to draw the reader in and envelope them in the plot. We need to know why bad things are happening to this character or, at least, yearn to solve the riddle. Without a character to root for or against, the plot becomes stiff and the reader tunes out. 

With a well-developed cast of characters, killing off one or two (or a dozen, like Game of Thrones) isn't a problem. You'll still have plenty of people to continue to develop and run alongside. Without such a cast, however, readers are more likely to set aside your story for one with more engaging protagonists and antagonists.

On Reading (and Writing) Long Books

posted Nov 20, 2016, 7:25 AM by Ben Kreucher

I love long, epic sagas. Sweeping masterpieces that drew you in and take their time to delve deep into the culture and wonder of a setting. But, writing that way takes time and has many challenges. And yet, some authors make it look effortless (of course, we're only reading their final draft, not the rough draft or the nth rewrite).

Can a book be too long? Would I even be able to hold the entire Harry Potter series in my hands if it were bound as one book? It's 1,084,625 words...that's 4,338.5 pages! 

Many sagas take place over the course of a series of books. A Song of Ice and Fire or The Wheel of Time, for example, and each volume is quite hefty. The first book in those each nears 300,000 words. Few authors endeavor to reach such lofty word counts. Brandon Sanderson, however, currently works on a saga, The Stormlight Chronicles, that has a 387k first book. 
In case you're unaware, most of the time the first book in a series is the shortest.

Quite the achievement, to be sure. And, the first two books are fantastic. I wait with eager anticipation for the next. However, I find myself wanting to write not 33 books, but one epic saga of witchcraft, wizardry, werewolves, vampires, angels, and demons. One saga, one book. No matter the length.

The Lord of the Rings, though broken up into three books, was originally intended to be one volume. Of course, it'd be 455,125 words long. Still, not the longest book ever. 

So, I suppose my goal is achievable, I just need to do the work. And, of course, make it an enjoyable read. Not a chore. Immersed in fantastical creatures, awe-inspiring magic, wonderful settings, and deep characters. That's a challenge I'm willing to accept.

See you at the finish line.

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