Category Archives: writing

NaNoWriMo – lock your inner editor in the basement.

Participant-2014-Web-Banner

Well, NaNoWriMo 2014 has now officially started. How did everyone do during their first full weekend of furious writing? Did the words flow out of your head and into the blank page or computer screen? Did you write until you felt like your head was on fire, your brain had turned to mush, and your fingers were bleeding? Or perhaps you stared at that blank page and felt overwhelmed by all the whiteness?

No matter what you have achieved this weekend, I’m sure you have realized something very important. Something that all the seasoned writers know, but that comes as an unpleasant surprise for all of us who decide to put our stories on paper for the first time.  I am speaking about the huge difference between the story that exists in our head and the result that gets put on paper.

I remember the first time I came face to face with this dichotomy. I had this important scene to write, and in my mind it was witty, well-written, full of good dialogue and tension – in other words, absolutely perfect. What I vomited on the page was absolute and utter crap… I was heartbroken. I was horrified. I was ready to press the delete button on the whole sorry excuse for a novel and go back to my day job.

But I did no such thing, and do you know why? Because first drafts are supposed to be bad. They are supposed to be full of typos, and ramblings, purple prose, and bad dialogue. In other words, like Ernest Hemingway said:

Hemingway

Yes, you heard it. Even the great masters of the written word have to struggle through a horrible first draft before they create a masterpiece. The trick to accomplishing that is to accept that your first draft will suck. In other words, you need to bind, gag, and lock your inner editor in the basement for the whole month of November (and maybe December and January as well) until your first draft is done.

That means every time you hear that little voice in the back of your mind telling you that your description sucks, that your dialogue is weak, that your plot is boring… tune it out, crank the music up, put earplugs in your ears, or shout, “La-la-la, can’t hear you!!!!” And keep writing.

Powering through your doubts and writer’s block is the only way you will get a finished draft to show for your efforts. It doesn’t matter if your first 3-4 chapters are a polished work of art if your story isn’t finished. As Kristen Lamb says, the world rewards finishers, not perfectionists.

Inner Editor

And if your inner editor is having a mental breakdown and sobbing uncontrollably in a dark corner of that basement, you can always tell her that she will have free reign over your work once the editing process starts. She will be free to take a chainsaw to your first draft and dismantle it at her heart’s desire. If you hate the scene you just wrote, keep a notebook handy and jot down the chapter and page number and a few words about what doesn’t work for you. Once you are done with your draft, you can use those notes during the editing process.

But for now, shhh, don’t listen to her, just write. Put one word on the page after another, no matter how bad does words seem. You can always edit a bad page, but you can’t edit a blank page.

So go on, wrimos, write your novels!

NaNoWriMo Prep – 10 useful links to stay motivated during the month of November.

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NaNoWriMo is just around the corner, and I’m sure that most of you are excited about diving right in and getting a start on your novel. So I’m not going to bore you with another long post about how to prepare for NaNo, or what I learned from my past NaNo experience, blah, blah, blah.

The next month will be a wonderful, but also tiring experience for everyone trying to put 50k words on page in 30 days. There will be days when words fly faster than you can write them and you get 2k down in an hour with no visible effort. Then there would be days when writing even 100 words feels like a gargantuan effort, and every one of them feels like it was written with your own blood. There will be days when you will be motivated and days when you will feel like giving up.

So I thought about what had helped me stick through the worst moments of self-doubt and discouragement and motivated me to keep going last year. The answer was simple: encouragement from fellow writers.

That’s why I created a list of blog posts about NaNoWriMo that I found useful, funny and motivating. I would encourage you to bookmark them and reread them any time you feel like you need a pep talk during the cold month of November. I know I will be revisiting them frequently.

  1. First, a little bit of shameless self-promotion. Last year I had written a post about what helped me stick to my goals during NaNo. I would recommend reading it around week two, when the dreaded burnout starts – NaNoWriMo – 15 days to go.
  1. If you need a good laugh and also a boot in the butt advice to keep going, check out this older post by Chuck Wendig – 25 Things you should know about NaNoWriMo. I love Chuck for his humor, but be advised that the language he uses is definitely not PG-13.
  1. Now, if you need to go deeper into the nuts and bolts of writing your novel, here is a very good guest post by Piper Bayard on Kristen Lamb’s blog about backstory and how much the writer has to disclose and what to keep away from the reader – Backstory: The More You Know, The Less I have to.
  1. And speaking of writing that first draft, here is an excellent post by Kristen Lamb herself about turning off your inner editor during NaNo – Write Fast and Furious! Learning to Outrun “The ?Spock Brain.
  1. If you write your story from the point of view (POV) of several characters, here is a wonderful post by Jami Gold about which POVs we should use when and how to switch between them without confusing your reader – Ask Jami: Whose Point of View Should We Use?
  1. I try to stick to the advice of “show, not tell,” when I write. So this post by Amy McElroy about integrating all the five senses in our writing was very useful – Sensory Description: Deep Beyond the Five Senses We Learned in Preschool.
  1. We all love our protagonists (otherwise why would we want to write about them in the first place?), but we need to be careful not to make them too much like ourselves. So here is a good post by Anne R Allen about that – 5 Protagonists Riders Hate: Why Writers Shouldn’t Identify too Closely with a Main Character.
  1. And let’s not forget to stay healthy during November madness. So here is a nice infographic article by YogaDork – “Pose before Prose” Yoga for Writers.
  1. Since writing 50k words takes a lot of your free time, cleaning, cooking and having a social life will be next to impossible. So here is a nice link for Easy Recipes for NaNoWriMo on Pinterest.
  1. Last but not least, is the NaNoWriMo site. It’s full of useful resources, how-to guides, pep talks and most of all, all the other wonderful wrimos attempting this challenge with you. Browse, read, visit the forums, find writing buddies, but most importantly, communicate with others. They will be your best cheerleaders, your most devoted fans and a shoulder to cry on when you feel discouraged.

Here you go, I hope this list will be useful to you guys! Feel free to share more useful links in the comments. I’m always looking for good posts to motivate me and help me improve my craft.

NaNoWriMo Prep – Know your Story or the Importance of Outlines.

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With NaNoWriMo fast approaching, I wanted to share some of the advice I took out of my own experience with NaNoWriMo 2013. I learned a lot about writing in general and my own writing process last year, so hopefully this will also be useful to somebody else.

Last week I had talked about why I think everyone should do NaNo at least once. This week, I want to talk about outlines.

I know  people who approach who don’t plan or outline their stories; they just start writing on November 1st and see where the story will take them. They enjoy the process of discovering the story, of being surprised by the unexpected plot twists. In writer-speak, they are called pantsers, because they write “from the seat of their pants”. I know a lot of wrimos for whom this approach works wonders, and who can’t imaging writing their first draft any other way. I learned the hard way that I’m not part of that club.

Lost

I am a plotter. I need to be familiar with my story and my characters before I start writing my first draft or I will crash and burn somewhere around the 1/3 mark. So for all of the first time wrimos who had tried to pants it before and didn’t quite succeed, my answer would be – start outlining.

It doesn’t have to be an extensive outline. I know some writers who are happy with just knowing the ending and the general direction in which their story is going before starting to write the first draft.  Others don’t outline the plot, but do extensive profiles on all their characters, then let those character’s reactions decide which way the story is going.

My experience with outlining:

I have learned that if I want to win NaNo (and finish my first draft), I absolutely need to spend some time exploring my story beforehand.

I need detailed background stories and profiles on my main characters, including the so important antagonist. I tell you, in order to get this sucker right, you have to know his / her life story better than your own.

I also need to know the ending. I might only have a vague idea of how my story will progress and which road it will take to reach that ending, but if I don’t know how my story ends, I cannot write. Tried, failed, learned from the experience.

Wriring Of Broken Things for NaNo 2013 had been my first try at outlining beforehand. I had character bios and a brief outline of what I wanted to happen each of the three parts of the book. Oh, and the last scene of course. It worked like a charm – I wrote like my fingers were on fire, and there hadn’t been a single day where I felt stuck. Of course, a lot of the scenes changed and the story evolved in the process, and I took a few detours and alternative routes, but I never felt utterly lost, because I knew my final destination.

This year, I am picking it up a notch. I am applying the process I developed for writing my short stories to my NaNo preparation. When I brainstorm a short story, I write a detailed scene by scene outline. They I start writing the story, trying to follow that outline. Most of the time, it changes drastically during the first draft, but that process allows me to immerse myself in the story and explore several possible courses of action.

I took this process and adapted it to this year’s NaNo novel, but instead of doing a scene by scene outline, I did a chapter by chapter one. So now I have detailed character bios, a general outline of the entire plot, and a detailed outline of what will happen in each chapter. Now I am ready to finally start writing! Is it November 1st yet?

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I want to finish this post with a word of caution though. Don’t consider your outline as something set in stone. It’s more of a roadmap with one route that would take you from point A (the beginning) to point B (the end), but there are a lot of roads and alternative routes. Feel free to take a different turn, stop in a small town, or to take the scenic route instead of the highway. Just keep your destination in mind and make sure you are progressing towards it no matter what road you take.

So how are you guys preparing for NaNo? Plotters or pantsers? How detailed are your outlines? I want to hear from you!

5 reasons everyone should do NaNoWriMo at least once.

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We are now midway through October and thousands of writers across the world are frantically preparing for the biggest writing challenge of the year – the National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo. Since I had jumped into it head first last November, I read a lot of blog post and articles about NaNo on the web, and I realized that there are often opposite reactions to the event. Some like it, some don’t; some swear it’s the best thing that ever happened to them, while others think it’s worthless.

Personally, I think that if you think of yourself as a writer, even an aspiring or pre-published one, you should do NaNo at least once in your life. And below are the 5 most important reasons why you should do it.

  1. 50k words is an average a professional writer produces every month, not just in November.

Before I did my first NaNo, the idea of writing 50k words in 30 days seemed almost impossible to me. I could barely manage to write 300 to 400 words a day, and it was a good day when that happened.

But consider that an novel is anywhere between 80k to 120k words. If a professional writer releases one of those a year, he has to go through all the steps (outlining, research, first draft, editing, beta readers, etc) in just 12 little months. That means  the first draft has to be put on paper pretty fast. So 50k words per month is actually not that farfetched.

So if you have a dream to one day become a professional writer, I think NaNo is a good training ground to see what it takes to do this for a living. Plus it’s always interesting (at least for me) to challenge myself and see if I can do this.

  1. NaNo helps you build a habit of writing consistently.

As I had mentioned in point 1, before NaNo, I was lucky to put 400 words on the page in a day, then spend a week or more without writing anything. After NaNo?  My average is about 1000 and I write every day. Or if I’m not working on my first draft, I edit, rewrite or outline something.

NaNoWriMo showed me that waiting for a muse to strike to sit down and write is just an excuse NOT to write. Inspiration can come to you, but it has to find you ready and already at work. I have a day job, I have a family and a social life, but NaNo showed me that I could find a way to balance all that and find time to put words on paper everyday if I wanted it badly enough. And if I managed to balance all that during the month of November and nobody died (and I still have my job), why not try to make a habit of it?

The results are staggering. Before NaNo, I had 3 attempted and abandoned novels. After NaNo, I have a published short story, a finished novel (still editing that one though), a novella, and 2 more short stories. I went from never finishing anything to consistently finishing all my projects.

  1. Lock your inner editor in the basement.

When you have to reach a daily goal of 1667 words, you don’t have time to stop and edit every sentence. Heck, sometimes you don’t even have time to go back and correct a typo. NaNo is about putting that first draft on paper, and even Ernest Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

Hemingway

NaNoWriMo teaches you how to tie you pesky inner editor up, gag her, and throw her in the basement. It allows you to write prose that looks like crap. A scene isn’t turning out quite to your liking? Don’t stop, write it down and move on. You are not quite sure where your character or story is going? Write on, your story might take you to a surprising and interesting turn.

Remember, that you can always go back and edit everything later, once you are done with your first draft, that’s what revisions are for.

  1. Discover which writing methods work for you.

Writing a novel is hard work. Writing one in 30 days is a feat. You need to be aware of all the tools in your writer’s toolbox and put them to good use if you want to achieve your goal. I look at NaNo as a big experiment to test different writing, outlining and time management techniques to determine which ones work for me. Those I keep for further use, the others I discard.

This is how I discovered that if I want to put my butt in the chair and type until my fingers bleed putting that first draft on paper, I need to do all my research and planning beforehand. I need to have a very good idea of what my story is and where it’s going or I get stuck and discouraged.

I didn’t outline any of my failed novel attempts, but for last year’s NaNo, I decided to change things up and wrote a 10 page outline of the whole project. It resulted in a finished draft. Lesson learned. Now I take the time to do extensive outlines on everything I write. This year I’m experimenting with chapter by chapter outlining.

5. Be part of a wonderful writing community.

Last year, over 600,000 people participated in the NaNo challenge. There is a lot to be said about being part of such a large community. Writing is a solitary act, but knowing that thousands of people around the globe are writing their own novels with you makes it considerably less so.

Plus the forums are full of useful resources for writers. There are always people happy to help you out if you are stuck, need help with your plot or character development, or just need some cheering up (or a kick in the butt to make you get off the internet and keep on writing). Browse the site, add some writing buddies, make friends, do some word sprints, and enjoy this special brand of November madness.

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And to conclude this blog post, I wanted to point out that when you wrote your 50k words and won NaNoWriMo, you are still not done. Your novel is probably not finished. So stick with it. Make the commitment to continue writing through December (and January, if necessary) until you can finally put those two wonderful words at the bottom of the page: THE END. It’s a wonderful feeling, I tell you. Makes you forget all the blood and tears and frustration that went into writing that first (and bloody awful) draft. And if this feeling makes you want to do it all over again with a new story, then congratulations, you are a writer!

The More you write, the better you get.

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While I was looking for a novel to write during NaNoWriMo 2014, I did a little archeological foray into my older, unfinished stories. Not only did I find a project to work on, but I also learned something new about my writing.

I read a lot of writing blogs and I talk to a lot of writers on Twitter and Facebook. All of them say that the more you write, the better you get. Up until now, I was skeptical about that, because I wasn’t seeing progress in my own writing. Other people, notably my beta readers, have told me that they noticed an improvement, but I just couldn’t see it. Maybe because I was too close to my work to notice the difference: I usually let my first drafts rest for only a week or two before I dive into edits.

Well, I understand the truth of this saying now. Choices is a story I had last worked on back in 2012. I got stuck about 25k words into the story and abandoned it. Last Monday, I decided to read through what I already had to see if anything could be salvaged. Well, two hours later, I was forced to admit that I was better off just scrapping the whole thing and just starting from scratch.

Finish what you start!
Finish what you start!

But that reread wasn’t all negative. It made me realize how much I had grown as a writer since 2012 when I had tried (and failed) to first write that story.

Back in 2012, I had no idea what I was doing, or what writing a novel required. I had no idea about story structure, tension and plot or character development. Most importantly, I had only a very vague grasp on what my writing process was. The result was a barely reanimated corpse of a novel.

I had no outline. I had no idea where my plot was going or if I even had a plot at all. I had a backstory only on my two main protagonists; everyone else, even the antagonist, was just vague shadows in the background. No wonder I got stuck and abandoned that story!

I have learned since then that I can’t write without a detailed outline, a good backstory on most of my characters, and a lot of worldbuilding. Oh, and I absolutely need a clear idea of the ending. So that’s what I will be working on during October, and once I’m done, I have full confidence that I can write this story to the end without problem.

Editing woes

Reading through my failed first attempt, I also noticed just how many rookie mistakes I had made. In fact, I might keep that draft as a perfect illustration on how NOT to write a story. I started with a small prologue that didn’t bring anything to the story and would have been better situated at the end of Chapter 1 or cut out of the story altogether. Most of my worldbuilding and character backstory were huge info-dumps that almost managed to put me to sleep during my re-read. All the dialogues had some truly “creative” dialogue tags when a simple “he / she said” would have done just fine. And, most importantly, I told about my characters’ reactions instead of showing them.

Back when I wrote those words, I didn’t know any better, but now, one finished novel and several short stories later, the flaws of that draft stood out like a sore thumb.

For me, it was an eye-opening but also reassuring experience: I did become a better writer in the past two years, even if I hadn’t noticed it. And I did that by sticking with my stories, not being afraid to write crappy first drafts that I would later edit within an inch of their lives. And I was not afraid to start all over again with a brand new story each time the old one was done. I also read wildly about writing, editing, and publishing.

I think as writers, we need that sort of reassurance from time to time, especially if we are querying our first novel and getting only silence or rejections back. So my advice would be – do not lose hope. When you feel like giving up, open that dusty box where you banished all of your older failures and read through one of them. See how much you have grown since then and feel proud of what you have accomplished. Then put your pen to paper or your fingers on the keyboard and start working on a new story!

One day I might be confident enough in my skill that I might even unearth some of my unfinished stories from 2004-2005, though I rather dread the horrors that might be lurking between those pages.

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One Year Anniversary – happy birthday to the Tower of Winds!

pen-and-paperToday I take the time to look back at the year I had and raise a glass to celebrate this blog’s first anniversary. Who knew I would last that long? Or that I would manage to post more or less consistently for such a long time? I certainly didn’t.

So almost a year ago, in October 2013, I accepted a dare to participate in NaNoWriMo 2013. Almost on impulse, I had also decided to start a blog and document this adventure.

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Up until that point, I had never managed to finish a story, nor did I have any experience in blogging. Heck, even my numerous attempts at keeping a diary had failed miserably. I would write consistency for a few weeks, then progressively lose interest until the diary lay abandoned and forgotten in a dusty corner. So I had several challenges in front of me, one of which was to find enough content to blog about at least once a week.

Well, one year later, the most important lesson I’ve learned is that nothing is impossible if you are willing to put in the necessary work.

A year ago, writing 1700 words a day to reach the 50k NaNo goal had seemed like an impossible task. But I gave it a try and not only did I win NaNo, but I went on plugging away and in mid-January 2014 I had finished the first draft of my very first novel. For someone who had never managed to get past the half-way point on a story before, this was an eye-opening experience.

The euphoria of “Holly sh&t, I can do this!!!” simply cannot be described. It has to be experienced.

I also kept on writing and learning about the craft. I finished several short stories and a novella, and even got one of the short stories published in this anthology. Had somebody told me a year ago that I would have achieved this much, I would have laughed in their face.

Of Dragons and Magic

I also learned a lot about my writing process and what works for me and what doesn’t. But most importantly, I learned not to fear the blank page, or the bad page. I learned that it was essential to finish a scene (a chapter, a story) even if it didn’t sound quite right, even if I was unhappy with it. I learned to let it go and power through to THE END without giving into the temptation to go back and edit an unfinished draft.

Basically, I understood that in order for me to finish a story, my inner editor needs to be bound, gagged and locked in the basement. But don’t worry, she gets to come out and play (and make me cry) when the time to edit the mess comes around.

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

As far as this blog goes, not only did I manage to post consistently for a whole year, but I also have a much clearer vision of the type of content I want to have here. This blog had started as a diary of my NaNo experience, but has progressively evolved into an account of my adventure as a writer and now a published author.

This blog also allowed me to meet other writers and make some wonderful friends in the writing community. This is really important to me, because writing is a solitary experience. It’s just you, a blank page (or a blank computer screen), and your thoughts, your hopes and (sometimes) your tears. It’s not a job, it’s a passion, sometimes an obsession that non-writers simply cannot understand. Having a vibrant and supportive writing community is essential if you want to keep your sanity.

And finally, the blog provides me with a place to share my book reviews. I am and have always been an avid reader. I usually have at least 1-2 books I’m reading at any given time. And if I happen to like them, I want to share them with others. The blog allows me to do exactly that during the Friday Review posts. Plus it’s my blog, so I’m not afraid to be frank about what I liked and didn’t like about a book.

And now that I have looked back, it’s time to look ahead. What are my goals and dreams for next year? Continue writing and editing my stories. Find a good (and affordable) editor and cover artist for The Mists of the Crossworlds and make the big (and scary) leap into self-publishing. I will definitely blog about that experience as it progresses. Finish editing Of Broken Things and maybe self-publish it next year as well. Finish the first draft of Choices, this year’s NaNo project. Finish a series of short stories in the Eye of the Norns cycle (the first of which, A Small Detour has been published), and self-publish them as a collection. Grab one of the plot bunnies that hop around my head and start on the next project.

And I will continue posting in this blog, sharing my book reviews, writing challenges, anecdotes and tidbits of wisdom (and silliness) with the world. And hopefully you, my dear blog followers, will still find my contributions interesting.

So Happy one year Anniversary to the Tower of Winds!

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Know your story or the importance of world-building.

Image by Van Assche -Embarcadero
Image by Van Assche -Embarcadero

There are many elements to a good book. I have already talked about the importance of a good antagonist and fleshed-out secondary characters, but none of this will do any good if you haven’t bothered with the world-building.

As authors, we are the absolute gods of the worlds we create, and as such, we NEED to know how those worlds function. We need to know the physics, the magic and religious system, the races and customs of the people we populate our worlds with. Because if your knowledge of this world is patchy, trust me, the reader will know.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that you need to prepare long ancestry lists for all of your characters. The reader doesn’t need to know about your protagonist’s great grand-aunt Bessie, unless she is relevant to the story somehow. But you, as an author, need to know where your characters come from and what they believe in. Your character’s background will help you determine how they will react in different situations. It will also prevent you from making a character act extremely out of character. Trust me, the readers will notice that as well.

If magic exists in your world, you need to know how it works better than the best Magisters in the best Magic Academy. You don’t have to reveal all the rules, you can even mislead your characters (and the reader) about some of them, but you need to know them.

Same goes for different gods and supernatural beings. You need to know their strengths and weaknesses. You need to know how they interact with each other and the humans that inhabit your world (if you have any).

Image courtesy www.tuku.cn
Image courtesy http://www.tuku.cn

That’s why I consider the world-building to be the most time-consuming process when brainstorming a new story. Creating a character’s backstory is a walk in the park compared to everything you need to take in to account when you start describing the world he or she inhabits. It becomes even more of a headache if your story requires your characters to travel long distances and visit different cultures. Because you can’t just say, “Hey, they are going to cross the Elf Forest. Elves like trees and are extremely arrogant,” and stop at that. Well, you could, but your character’s visit to this Elf Forrest would be extremely shallow and boring. And the readers will notice it.

Even though it’s a time-consuming and demanding job, I really love world-building. I feel like a child in front of an unopened Christmas present – can’t wait to peel off the layers of wrapping and discover what lays underneath. I think it’s the most exciting part of the whole process – discovering a brand new world that nobody has ever visited before and setting its boundaries.

Before I wrap this post up and let you all return to your reading or writing, let me leave you with a word of caution though. NEVER break the rules you have created, even if those rules put your characters in a seemingly impossible situation. Readers will know, if you introduce a Deus Ex Machina to save your protagonist at the last possible moment, and they will not like it. If they are anything like me, they will feel cheated and walk away from your book frustrated with the story.

This story is a chameleon.

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A few months ago I wrote about The Mists of the Crossworlds, a short story that decided to become a novelette after it went through the first round of beta readers. You can read my post about that here if you are interested. So I went back to the drawing board, did an intense brainstorming session (that might have involved some alcoholic beverages), and added another 6k words to the story.

Well, now it’s finally done and ready to be unleashed on the world, I thought as I wrote THE END for the second time. I ran the story through the meat grinder of the first edit, rewrote 90% of it again, and send it to my beta readers yet again.

Then I got the comments back from one of my beta readers, the awesome Derek Pietras, and I was in for a surprise.

“Great story,” he said. “But the ending feels rushed and it feels like you left a good chunk of the story out.”

My first reaction upon reading this was “Not again!” I was so sure that this time I had uncovered everything this story had to give, and I was frankly a bit tired of it. So I put both my draft and the critique away and decided to sleep on it.

Not over

When I came back the next day and got to thinking about the ending of The Mists, I had to agree with Derek – it really felt rushed and abrupt. It left the reader with more questions than answers, which could be rather frustrating.

So I went back to basics and considered the main theme of the story, which is the interaction between the mists of the crossworlds and the Guides who travel the paths. That’s when I saw that while I had brought the protagonist to some sort of resolution in the end, I never even touched the conclusion of that main theme. So my beta reader was absolutely right: this story is far from finished. By the looks of it, I will end up adding at least another 4-5k words before I’m finally done.

While I was thinking about the ending, I realized that there was a whole additional layer that I needed to add to this story. So I’m looking at yet another full rewrite.

I must admit that this realization was both a bit disappointing and rather exciting.

Disappointing because I was looking forward to make The Mists of the Crossworlds my first self-published work. I even had a cover picked out, and I had a list of trustworthy editors. And I had spent the last few weeks educating myself about all the intricacies and pitfalls of the self-publishing route. So yes, I was disappointed that this important milestone in my writing career has to be postponed yet again.

But I am truly excited because there is so much more to this story than I thought when I first started working on it back in March. I feel like an archeologist peeling layer upon layer of dirt to uncover more and more treasures. And this new layer is not something I had planned for when I wrote this draft, yet now that I look at it, the hints are already hidden within the text. How did that happen?

I heard other writers talk about how sometimes their stories or their characters would surprise them, but this is the first time (well, technically the second time with this particular story) that this happens to me. The feeling is absolutely amazing. This is a story that keeps on giving.

So I’m going back to the drawing board again, reworking my outline, and I’m eager and excited to jump back into the writing process. Hopefully, once I’m done with it this time, I will be able to give my readers a truly interesting and well-written story.

So tell me, my fellow writers, has something like that ever happened to you? Have you had a story that just kept evolving and changing its colors, like a chameleon?

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The importance of secondary characters.

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We all know that in order for the readers to want to finish our book, we need to create a compelling story. A major part of that is coming up with an engaging and fleshed out protagonist that they would want to spend time with. So as writers, we spend a lot of time creating a backstory for your main character. And since a protagonist needs a good antagonist to create conflict and drive the plot forward, we tend to spend just as much (if not more) time fleshing out our villain as well.

But I have noticed a tendency in the last few books I read which made me go back and look over my own stories with a critical eye. See those books I read were good. The protagonist was likable, the story interesting and fast paced, the villain sufficiently evil, but not insane enough to totally put you off, but something was lacking still. Then I realized what it was – those two were the only fully fleshed out characters in the whole story. The rest of the people the hero met on his journey or who traveled with him were just talking heads with no personality whatsoever. They were just there to toss a few lines of dialogue and help the protagonist along the way. Other than that, they were non-entities. And you know what? That made for a boring read.

Human beings are social animals. We can’t exist in social vacuum. Well, neither can our protagonists. They have a family, they have friends, they have co-workers, acquaintances, people they like, people they don’t like. Heck, even if they were raised in the jungle by a pack of wolves, there would still be certain wolves they would consider friends and others they would consider enemies.

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I think the mistake we tend to make when we are planning out our stories is not focusing enough on those secondary characters. We spend so much effort on the backstories of our protagonists and antagonists that we tend to forget about the rest. We feel content to just put labels on them, like the best friend, the love interest, the slightly annoying but useful sidekick. What we forget is that in order to be interesting and to add depth to the story and the world-building, those secondary characters need to have lives of their own, independently of what our protagonist is doing. The best friend doesn’t cease to exist once he leaves the protagonist’s side. The love interest doesn’t just go into her room and stare at the wall for the rest of the day once the hero is off to save the world.

What I am trying to say is that the books that I read and absolutely loved had one thing in common – fleshed-out secondary characters. Sure, they were there to help the protagonist and drive the story forward, but I could feel like they had stories of their own as well. They had their own concerns and goals. They were living, breathing people, not cardboard cutouts. And you know what? It made the books more engaging, because I really cared about what happened not only to the main character, but also to all those other people as well. Heck, I wouldn’t mind reading a standalone book about some of them.

A few examples of good books with a plethora of secondary characters are Three parts Dead by Max Gladstone. Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey (and the rest of the Expanse series), or all of the Malazan Books of the Fallen by Steven Erikson (starting with The Gardens of the Moon).

I think a good indicator of whether a book has good secondary characters is to see how much fanfiction is written about them. Because if readers empathize with your characters, they will want to know more about them, thus they will create their own stories for them. Just look at the hundreds of stories written about secondary characters from the Harry Potter books.

I know it’s a lot of work to plan out and write backstories for often a large number of characters, but the reward for it is well worth it, in my opinion. First of all, your world will feel more “lived in” if people inhabiting it are tridimensional. Secondly, it gives your protagonist more inner depth if he or she has to interact with people who have their own opinions and are not afraid to disagree with him / her. And finally, you never know when you might fall in love with one of the “sidekicks” you created and make him the hero of your next story.

Writing is a life-long journey

writing - lifelong journey

Let me start this post with a personal anecdote. I have a full-time job and a family, which doesn’t leave much time for writing. In the past year, I had slowly taught myself to write whenever I had a few spare minutes, but I do the bulk of my writing at night before bed and during lunch. So I’m pretty used to showing up at restaurants with a notebook or a printout and a pen, and usually people don’t pay much attention to the crazy lady in the corner boot mumbling to herself and scribbling furiously in a notebook.

But last week I had an interesting encounter which made me think about what I am, what I do and where I go from here.

I had a “writing lunch” at Applebee’s last week when the waitress asked me what I was doing. I told her I was writing a short story. She seemed genuinely interested and asked if I had anything published.

Got anything published

This is when the first shift in perception happened. See, up until May this year, I had been a pre-published or aspiring author. But then my short story, A Small Detour, got accepted and published in this anthology. If you are interested, you can read my post about this exciting event.

So when asked about published work, I could legitimately answer, “Well, yes, I have a short story on amazon,” and give her the name of the anthology. And then something extraordinary happened: the waitress came back with her Kindle and made me input the name of the anthology for her. And then she bought the book!

Of Dragons and Magic

And I realized something important – I was actually a published author, even if all I had published so far was a short story. When I began my writing journey last October, I hadn’t even dreamed to be able to achieve that within a year.

This also made me think about why I do this. I mean, when I started the first draft of my novel Of Broken Things, getting something published had been the sum of my ambition. Ten months into the journey, I realize that for me it’s a life-long commitment. Money is not the end goal (though it would sure be nice to earn some) and neither is fame. My goal is to create compelling stories that people would want to read, because seeing the excitement in the waitress’s eyes when she said she couldn’t wait to read the anthology was the best reward I could ask for. She would spend a few hours blissfully lost in the wonderful worlds the authors have created, and one of them was mine.

So where do I go from here? Well, I continue writing of course, because the more I write, the more ideas pop into my head waiting to be put into stories.

I’m halfway through the first major edit of my novel Of Broken Things. I have the ghost of an idea along with most of the characters for my NaNo 2014 project.

I’m editing a novelette I had written back in May, and I have another unrelated short story to edit as well.

I have finished a new short story set in the same world as A Small Detour and about the same characters, and I have ideas for at least three more stories in this world. Once I finish them all, I am considering self-publishing them as a series. More about that in future posts.

I also want to dust off a project I had started a couple years ago. Back then I was just dabbling in writing; I had no idea that writing was hard work, and that first drafts always sucked, and that you had to push through it all, good day or bad day, to get to the end. I got frustrated because what had seemed so awesome in my head turned out total crap on paper and abandoned the project. But the story had potential and I love the characters, so I want to give it another chance.

Oh, and did I mention the dozens of half-baked ideas clamoring in my head and which might or might not turn into full-fledged stories?

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So all is well in my world: I am a published author, I am still in love with what I do and I have plenty of ideas to last me for a while!