How to Write Better Historical Fiction—In Four Easy Steps

Right now, I’m writing a piece which blends historical fiction and fantasy fiction in a historical setting. I’m hoping you might find some of the advice below useful, whether you’re hoping to write literary-fiction or genre-fiction in a historical setting.

Crusade Number 4

Today, I’ll give you four easy steps I used to make my historical settings richer, deeper and more true-to-life. It’s those little details that you use in world-building which can make a big difference and can really wrap your readers up in the world you’ve created.

(SIDE NOTE: Oddly enough, your humble blogger here, has a college degree in…History! Cue: Gasps by my followers. So, I like to think the following is (semi)-expert advice.)

Here are my Four Steps to Writing Better Historical Fiction…


1. Pick a Date and Place
This is the easy part. Or should be. Once you have a character in mind. You need to set about finding a time for them to live in. Now, this all kind of coalesces at the same time usually, I get that. But once you have someone in mind you have to start really focusing in on specific dates and places.

For example, in my latest story, “The Number Thief,” I chose my character Yusuf and I knew he lived in 13th century Muslim Spain. Then, I focused on the date 1236 and specifically Cordoba. Bam! I had a date and a place.

2. Gather and Read Secondary Sources
Secondary sources are books looking back at a time period. That is, history not written during the time period itself. They are great for giving you an overview, the total landscape of the time. They’re an essential first step to getting your bearings and starting to understand what actually happened. But they shouldn’t be your final step.

So, getting back to my example of Spain in 1236…Some of the good examples of secondary sources for the period are:

In each one of these books a modern scholar looks back and gives their take on a certain time and place. But one of the big drawbacks is that they’re including their own interpretation and point of view, which leads us to…

3. Gather and Read Primary Sources
Now that you have the lay of the land, it’s time to dive into what the people of the time actually thought and experienced. You need to read primary sources, those things written at that time by the actual players in history.

And this is where, I find, you get the real insights. Historians really do a good job of bringing things together and explaining larger trends, but you need the actual players in these historical dramas to explain their inner motivations and desires. And to us, as writers, that’s what is really important! That’s what gives these characters the breath of life—the yearnings and fears which animate and drive them.

What really makes someone want to go on a Crusade? Or join a jihad in opposition to a Crusade? Or embark on a risky commercial venture trading goods across a dangerous piratical-infested sea? Or give everything up to join a convent or become a wandering mystic? Well, thankfully, we have written records from people who did just that.

So again, Spain in 1236…Here are some of the primary sources I’ve used to get me into the mentality of that time:

  • The Song of the Cid by anonymous (Great for getting the mentality of a Spanish crusader and freebooter of the Reconquista!)
  • The Ring of the Dove by ibn Hazm (Great insights into the luxurious court life of Muslim Spain)
  • The Proofs of Prophecy by Abu Hatim al-Razi (A debate between two Muslim philosophers of the time is priceless for what I’m writing! I could almost cut-and-paste the dialogue here—but did not!).

There you go! Your primary sources should give you great insights into your time period from the people who lived it.

4. Capture Your Notes
As you’re going, you should be marking up passages, highlighting things and making mental  notes. (I do!). But then, you have to collect all these notes together and drop them into your piece somehow.

Essentially, there are two ways to do this. First, you can create a separate physical notebook or a Word document. Or you can do what I do, which is simply pepper some of these details into your working outline, as appropriate. And then recall and remember useful bits as you write. The bottom line is that you  have to become a student of that time period. If you’re reading all the right materials, certain important points will stick out and seem to  raise their hands (“Pick me! Pick me!”) at just the right point in your narrative.  Then, you just have to put them in.

For example, through my readings, I learned that the Republic of Pisa had a governing council. This council had the power to vote and approve certain measures. As I looked for a way to wrap up “The Number Thief,” I knew having the last scene where they passed judgment would be perfect. So, I wrote the last scene to incorporate them. It turned out great!

I have also found creating a simple chronology of the time period helps you to not get lost. You can also combine fictional elements into this chronology, if that helps.


That’s it for today! Four easy steps to help you improve your stories which use an historical setting. I know this one is a bit esoteric, but I hope someone out there finds it useful!

That’s all for now. Until next time…

Keep reading, keep writing,

Darius

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The Craft: Theseus in the Labyrinth

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

The young king staggered back and stood alone in the darkness. The great beast’s chest heaved one last time and stopped forever. He wiped the bloody sword blade on the hem of his tunic and grabbed a torch from the wall. And in that moment, gazing down at his vanquished enemy, he realized that the real Minotaur, the real man killer of Crete, was not the beast itself, but the labyrinth. The beast that he must slay was not the dead creature on the ground, but the tons of mute rock and wall surrounding him.

Minotaur

The young king walked to the edge of the room, grabbed the rope he had laid on the stone floor, pulled it until it was taut and began to gather it up in his hand…


And cue: today’s hackneyed metaphor…I think writers, like Theseus, have to tread carefully in the labyrinths of their own works. Unless you take the requisite precautions, you run the danger of getting lost and tripped up by your own plot. And perishing deep in a labyrinth of your own making.

Unless you’re one of those lucky few (the “Pantsers”) who can sit down and write a whole work by just “seeing” where it starts, where it ends and some vague scene in the middle, you’re best plotting out your work. (I leave it to you to determine if you’re one of the Elect Pantsers). How do I know this? I’ve learned by bitter experience. I have forged ahead into the heart of labyrinth many times, slayed the beast and then thought…Wait! How the hell do I get out of here!!!??? But it was too late! I had written myself into a corner where only a lame contrivance or a Deus Ex Machina could get me out. And you don’t want to do that!

So…To avoid this situation I always bring a rope (metaphor continuing now!) with me on my writing expeditions. Something I can tug on, in case I get lost deep in the labyrinth. It’s what I call my outline (actually I call it my CSP + K outline). Now, my outline (like the U.S. constitution) is a living document. It’s not written in stone. I can modify at any time, given new developments in the story. And, VERY IMPORTANT POINT: I don’t have to follow what is says at all costs. If a character decides to do something different than I intended (as long as it’s in character), I let them do it! If a relationship between characters matures or develops in unexpected ways as I write—I let them do it. If a scene falls flat, I let it fall flat and think about axing it later. BUT BUT BUT…I always take a few minutes AFTER I’m done writing the scene to see how it affects the outline and where I intend the piece to go. And what I’ve discovered is that these “living changes” tend to have little or no effect on where the piece is headed.

So, along I go through the labyrinth I’m constructing with my outline to guide me…And around each turn and down each corridor I’m picking up the rope, seeing where it came from, and more importantly, where it’s headed. I can’t see too far ahead in the darkness though, so I drop the rope and walk a few more paces on. I pick up the rope again, look up and down the corridor. Yep. Everything looks good. I drop the rope. Walk on again. Pick it up again. No, this is a little off, there’s a turn coming up, so I need to tweak this…and this… and this. OK…Done. I drop the rope and move on…

Got it? The outline lets me see ahead a little and back a little. I use it as guide to where I want to drive the story. It’s not a strict guide—I have to let the characters live and breathe—they drive the action. But the outline lets me make sure the story doesn’t go completely off the rails.

One final note: an outline, paradoxically, is more necessary for a short story than a long piece. I know that sounds crazy! And I do use outlines for both. BUT…A short story is so dense, so quick. You have to know where you’re headed in the first 100 words. You have to bake the plot, character and setting into those first 100. There’s no time to waste! So you need to know where you’re going right out of the gate. I notice that now, when I write a short story, I move quickly from scribbled-down idea to outline to a first draft.  So, if you’re trying to write short stories—don’t skip the outline!

At least, that’s what has worked for me. I’m not saying it will work for you, but still something to consider as you get ready to write or pre-write your next piece.

Good luck and until next time.

Keep reading, keep writing!

,Darius


Apparently, in one variation of the labyrinth myth, Theseus does not even have his sword. He only has his rope/twine. He strangles the beast (though whether he uses the rope/twine to do so is unclear). A very interesting variation of the story!

The Craft: What I Learned about Writing from “Mike Tyson’s Punchout!”

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

Here’s a funny little realization I had on the connection between a classic Nintendo game  and my writing.

In the olden times, when we weren’t fighting off the dinosaurs or gathering brush to feed the fires in our caves, every spare moment we had not fighting off said-dinosaurs or gathering said-kindling, was spent hunched around the fire, or better yet the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. (Most caves, oddly, had electricity!). And one of the most popular games on the NES was “Mike Tyson’s Punchout!

Baldbull

Now, my younger self had pretty good reflexes. But still, it was hard, (hard!) to beat the tougher and tougher opponents you faced in the game. Sure, Glass Joe was easy. Then you work your way up to Don Flamenco, King Hippo and finally—the main event—Mike Tyson himself. Tyson seemed IMPOSSIBLE to beat at first. But luckily, you had your coach, the trusty Doc Louis, who between rounds would give you valuable boxing advice. And his most golden advice of all?

“Stick and move. Stick and move.”

In the context of game play this meant “sticking” or punching your opponent quickly once or twice and then “moving” to the side to dodge the counterattack. And it worked. You could almost count it out: “Strike One. Strike Two. Dodge. Strike One. Two. Dodge. Strike One. Two. Dodge.” And using that strategy you could even take down Iron Mike.

So what in the hell does this have to do with writing?

Good question. Well, after a recent writing session I got to thinking…Cause that’s what writers do to cool down from a writing session (sure!). I thought and thought and I realized that, at its best, that’s exactly what I want my writing to do.

“Stick and move. Stick and move.”

In this metaphor, the writer is the human-player/boxer and the reader is the opposing (computer) boxer. And what I’m trying to do is “stick” the reader with…let’s say…some detail for the setting (Bam!). And then some swift character development (Bam!). Then, I “move.” I move along the plot, an action occurs and the narrative goes forward. Then, back on the attack. I “stick” the reader with a little insight into a character’s motivation (maybe they slip up and utter something they didn’t mean to). Bam! Then, I stick again (maybe the other character asks them if they’re serious or only joking). And then it’s time to move the plot forward again (Maybe a rider appears on the horizon, but neither of them know who it is).

  “Stick and move. Stick and move.”

So, I’m constantly “sticking” the reader with little nibbles of setting, character development/backstory or world building. And then “moving” on by propelling the plot forward.

It might sound funny and it kind of is. But let me tell you there’s more than one writing session I’ve ended recently softly mumbling to myself:

    “Stick and move. Stick and move.”

…while the people around me in the café turn up the volume on their headphones, look away into space, or gather their children closer.

“Honey, stay away from the strange Writing Man.”

Anyway, all for now. See you next time!

,Darius

The Craft: Plot, Plot, Plot

Lately, all I’ve been thinking about is plot. That’s right, that little thing that makes a big difference in your story. And like anything we obsess over it’s been invading my subconscious starting with my dreams.

Can’t get Plot out of my head…

So, there I was a couple of nights ago, just enjoying my sleep, minding my own business when I had this dream, which I jotted down as soon as I woke up:

Suddenly, I was reading pulp fiction. A big, long book—400 pages or more. Stephen King, Dean R. Koontz, Kresley Cole or something like that…I read and read and read, faster and faster. I understood where the plot was going, where the characters were headed, how the conflict was moving ahead…I was looking down on the words from above.

Suddenly, I turned the next page and realized it was the end of the chapter.  The author wrapped it all up perfectly. The tension reached a climax and—bam! That last sentence was dynamite. It propelled everything forward, but put in that last bit of mystery and fricking INTRODUCED a new, unanswered question.

“Damn! I thought! This guy/girl is good.” I put in my bookmark and thought—I can’t wait for tomorrow night when I can pick this up again and FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. That guy/girl is a CRAFTY author.

And that was it. That was all. But it was enough. It’s exactly what I’m trying to do subconsciously when I write. My conscious brain is too overloaded with dialogue, scene-setting, action, etc., etc, etc., when I’m actually writing to worry much about plot. But that (from the dream above) is exactly what I’m aiming at. So now, the subconscious sleeping Darius and the subconscious awake (and writing) Darius are in synch. United and working on the same problem: How to build tension slowly, all while turning up the heat bit by bit. It’s something I’ve screwed up massively in the past and I really want to get this right this time.

It’s great place to be with the writing for now, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Until next time…

Keep Reading, Keep Writing,

Darius

The Craft: Research, How Much Is Too Much?

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

I’m trying to get the balance right between research and writing. One thing I don’t want to do when writing fiction is research too much.sketch

The other day, I read an interview with Tom Stoppard, the playwright. I haven’t been able to track down the exact one again. But the important point was: can one over-research before sitting down to write a story? Is there  a point where you should be begin writing before you know too much about a given topic? In the final analysis, Tom says yes, you shouldn’t wait to become a total expert, but dive in.

Now, I’ve written my fair share of stories in historical settings. And the question is: where do you stop? I don’t know the exact answer, but I do know you can overdo the research. You have to go into a work still a bit ignorant about it. You must choose the difficult middle path.

Over-research or over-plot your story/book and you risk making it stale. You’ll sit down to write and have nothing to say, it’s almost like you’ve written yourself out. Written the idea out. On the other hand, research too little, plot too little and you could soon lose yourself in a trackless forest of options and alternatives. There’s nothing to guide you back to the kernel of the story. And your world’s details are flawed or inaccurate.

So, when do you put the research down and begin in earnest? As always, there’s no hard and fast rule, you just have to make a gut decision. Right now, I think of it like a sketch of the human body. You want to have the skeleton and its position complete in your mind, but you don’t need all the organs in place or the skin. You just need a basic idea of how the thing will look on the page. That’s not to be dismissive of research or world-building, but you have to know when it’s time to stop and begin to write.

Everyone will have their limit for this, my only point is there is a danger in doing too much research, too much plotting, too much thinking. Your research and plotting has to be a foundation. The story itself is the building. When the foundation looks good, you have to start putting the walls in place. And in a writing a story, the writer is the only one who can make that call. It’s your world, writer, you have to build it.

Good luck and see you next time,

DJ

The Craft: How to Make Your Characters Like Metamorphic Rock

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction...]

[Spoiler alert: This post contains plots details from Hamlet and Moby Dick.]

I hope you forgive this very extended metaphor…

I wonder if my fellow writers out there have ever considered how their characters are (or ought to be) like metamorphic rock? Hmmm…I don’t see many hands going up or nods of agreement out there, so let me explain. NY-Central-Park-Rock-7333

It  turns out that there are not three forms of rock like we learned in school: the igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic. We were lied to…sort of. In reality, there are just two types: rocks made from magma (igneous) and rocks made from falling sediment (sedimentary). Now, both of these can be turned into metamorphic rock, but they both start as igneous or sedimentary and become metamorphic rock.

But how do these metamorphic rocks come about? By the application of heat and PRESSURE.

Metamorphic rocks arise from the transformation of existing rock types, in a process called metamorphism, which means “change in form”. The original rock (protolith) is subjected to heat (temperatures greater than 150 to 200 °C) and pressure, causing profound physical and/or chemical change.

Ok…So what the heck does ANY OF THIS have to do with characters in fiction??? Well, here it is: compelling characters always change (almost always). And they change because they are brought under PRESSURE. So, if you have a great character, don’t just put them up on the shelf or in a monastery free from temptation and trial. Bring them down from the shelf, thrust them out into the world, into the marketplace, onto the field of battle. And THEN see how they do. Do they remain the same? Or do they evolve, change, metamorphosize (spell checker says this is not a verb in English???? Is that right?) because of the pressure? And if they do…Voila! You have two of the three elements of your story: character and plot. You just need to add a setting.

So remember: take that beloved character, that untested protolith, apply pressure/heat and see what they change into. These days, I don’t pre-write a main character for a story (protagonist) without wondering how he/she will change. How he/she will be different at the END of a story than they were at the START.

PS…What about those great characters who DON’T change? Those Hamlets and Ahabs of yore?  It’s interesting that both are transformed ultimately by death. That being said, they come under extreme pressure and don’t change, but become hardened in their ways, more what they are. Even they change—to a degree. At least the pressure is applied, even if it comes to naught. It’s their standing in the way of this pressure which makes them great, albeit tragic, characters.

Alright, see you next time. In the meantime, don’t forget to apply to some pressure to your most beloved characters.

See you,

DJ

The Craft: How to Find Your Writing Routine

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

You’ve got to do what works for you. No less true in writing, than in life. And to do something well, you must do it consistently. And that’s where routine cHaruki-Murakami-007omes in.

I’m a big believer in routine, especially when it comes to writing fiction. For me, each writing day is the same: I get up,  hit the gym, grab lunch. Then, it’s time for a late coffee and some light reading. Right about then, I’m ready to dive into the writing. I write until about 5-6 p.m. and I’m done. It’s not a long day, but it’s a tiring one and lot of energy is spent in that one afternoon.

Now, that routine wouldn’t work for everyone. And my routine has changed over the years. I used to write in the morning, at home, but now I write in the afternoon at a café. Even my routine has evolved over time. So, what will work for you, if you’re trying to write fiction? It’s hard to say. But I do know you’ll have to experiment and find what works for you. And once you find it, you’ll probably be best sticking to it.

Let’s take two successful fiction writers as examples of how different writing routines can be. First, there’s Haruki Murakami. A pretty famous guy. What does he do? Here it is:

Murakami rises at 4am on most mornings, writes until noon, spends the afternoon training for marathons and browsing through old record stores and turns in, with his wife, at 9pm.

Pretty boring, right? But as he says, it’s a routine that works for him.

“It’s just routine,” he says and laughs loudly. “It’s kind of boring. It’s a routine. But the routine is so important.”

Well, that routine has gotten him through several long novels, including the 1,000-page plus 1Q84. So, will what he does work for everyone? No.

Let’s take another successful writer: Kei Miller. Miller’s routine is almost the opposite of Murakami’s. In fact, it’s not really a routine at all.

There are too many distractions. I succumb to them all. And I would like to tell you that my distractions are noble–rereading the classics, diligent research. But they are not. I am distracted by bad TV shows from the US, by the top stories in the Jamaican newspapers, by Candy Crush (God did I just admit that?), by the entirety of the internet…

Sound familiar? Despite all that, somehow, a pattern does emerge.

Writing periods, when they come to me, do not come neatly. They stretch across days, from 10 at night to five in the morning, me going to sleep only when I see the sky brightening and suddenly in my head is the warning voice of an old Caribbean woman: “Don’t make tomorrow catch you looking into yesterday!” I go to sleep then, but it is a restless sleep, and I wake up just a few hours later to write again…

And what does he produce as a result? Nine books in 10 years, as well as articles and essays and reviews and blogs and lectures. An output perhaps more staggering than Murakami’s.

So, what’s the point of all this? You have to find your own routine or pattern. And then stick to it. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Sometimes, I add or subtract little things from my writing routine: will things change if I don’t workout? If I listen to music instead? You must try earnestly and forthrightly to find what works for you. Write down how many words you wrote on a certain day and see if it was more than yesterday and analyze what you did differently. Did you produce more? Maybe there was a change in your routine that contributed to that higher word count…

There’s lots of ways to become more productive, but routine is probably the best. And nobody can give that routine to you. Not me, not your significant other, not your writing sensei. You just have to go out there and start doing it. That’s the only way there’s ever been.

Good Luck,

Darius

The Craft: How to Know You’re Ready to Write Your Story

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

Has it been 2 weeks since my last post? Man, time flies. Pebble Ready

So…A couple of posts ago, I talked about rejection. This time, let’s talk emotion. Let’s talk where I’m at in my writing right now. No retrospectives, no looks  at other writers or other writers’ work.  I just want to answer: Where am I at? And where’s my writing at?

I think I’ve made progress in one small area: story selection. I’ve written about this before too. You know, the difficulty of discerning which story to work on next. It’s not easy. Here are just some of the considerations:

  • Is the underlying idea any good?
  • Do the characters seem like living, flawed people, not…(ahem)…characters?
  • Is the story idea mature? That is, is it fleshed out enough to carry the whole story?
  • Are you fired up to write it?

Let’s take these one by one. I think I’ve developed some ideas about how to test whether a story is ripe.  

Is the underlying idea any good?
If you’re not sure if a story idea is any good., there are a couple of ways to find out. First, put away your prewrite or notes on the story. Let it sit. For a week, two weeks, a month. Don’t open or revisit the notes at all. That part is key. Then, take a good long look at them. Read them from start to finish. Does the idea still strike you? Be honest with yourself.

Half the time I’ve done this, I’ve thought. “Oh man, this sucks. This idea is no good.” I have to admit to myself that the enthusiasm that accompanied the first capture of this idea was misplaced. But I archive the idea, in case it pops up in the subconscious later.   

The other half of the time I look at the notes again and think “This is good…Yeah…Yeah…Solid…This works.” And usually, at that point, I find myself adding to the notes and fleshing out the plot as I go. That’s a winner. Time to dress it up and write the first draft.

Do the characters seem like living, flawed people?
My best characters haunt me. I try to put them down, forget about them until I’m ready to write a piece, but they’re always there, popping up, nagging me. I might be at a noisy bar or at the grocery store or in a long, boring work meeting. My mind drifts. I’m brought into their world, the world of their story. And suddenly, they’re there acting out a favorite scene or, perhaps, a new one. They say the most interesting things. All the other characters in the scene turn to them, enthralled. And I feel that I’m simply another minor character in that piece, watching them emote. The scene continues for a moment and then. Poof! They’re all gone. And I’m back at the bar, the store, the office. But the scene lingers in my memory. I’ll often write down what they said on my phone or the shopping list or my notepad. It’s sad to seem them go, but I know they’ll be back. They’ll come around again. They always do.

It’s only the flawed characters that do this. The ones who are basically good, but are messed up or arrogant or conflicted in some way. People, like characters, are only interesting when they have scars. Those who have things too easy, often have little to offer. Only under pressure and with tough choices to make, is one’s true character revealed. They may triumph or fail under this pressure, but the interesting thing comes in seeing them try. So, take that perfect character, give them a back story, give them scars. And then give them a struggle, force them to make tough choices. Perhaps even a situation with no right choices. And, suddenly, you’ll have a story on your hands.

(The funny thing I’ve noticed: The characters do go away once you write their piece. Somehow, they seem to drift away once they’ve been en-souled in a story. Like a ghost, they’re vindicated, they fulfilled their destiny and can drift off.)

Is the story idea mature?
This is a tough one. Haven’t figured it out yet. A story’s not ready, I think, if it’s just a few lines and a character or two. You have to flesh it out a bit more. Maybe write down some major plots points, but you also don’t want to overdo it. If you outline the whole thing, you may not want to write it by the time you’re done. It may seem too predictable or rote to write out. In fact, this recently happened to me. I wrote out a detailed outline of a story, so when it came time to write it just seemed stale and obvious to me. Dead, in a way.

Somehow, you have to sense when the time is right to put down the pen on pre-writing and just launch yourself into the story. It’s never too easy to tell when precisely you should start that page 1, but you have to put away the notes at some point and begin.

Are you fired up to write it?
This should really be first in this list. I wouldn’t have said that even a year ago. But I’m starting to realize that in writing, the heart comes first, not last. You have to lead with your emotion, led it lead you, but guide and temper it with reason.

The stuff that I’ve written recently that I think is best, came from an emotional need to get the piece out, to get it down on paper. It’s that whole “Write What You Love” thing. The best stories are those that are “burning in your belly,” not the one you think will win an award or get accepted by a magazine or that your friends will like. Here’s something from Mike Long, a speechwriter and playwright.

If you write what you think will sell instead of what you’re passionate about, it’ll come through in the form of lesser quality. Why? Because you write better when you care.

I don’t know why that is, but I can verify it’s true. I write better when I’m passionate about something. If you feel strongly about a piece, and all the other things above check out, it’s probably time to sit down and start banging out the first draft.


Those are just random thoughts on writing fiction. And I’ve only found they work for me at this point in my career. They may not work for you. But they might. The only way to find out is to give them a shot.

If you feel you are ready, I wish you the best of luck. The world could use some great writing right about now. 

Good luck,

Darius

The Craft: How to Hunt and Destroy Gerunds

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

Today’s post is for the writers out there. I’m going to put forward one quick, easy method to sharpen your later drafts. It’s a method that’s simple, but also has a little technological A Gerundtrick to it.

First thing, I’m going to assume you hate gerunds. You know, those words in English that end in –ing. Like walking, talking, etc. One thing I’ve noticed and come to loathe is the use of gerunds in my writing…Dammit…Wait…That one didn’t count…

Anyway, if you don’t hate gerunds, you should. They tend to make sentences and action weaker. And they can interrupt the flow of your story too. Just look at these sentences:

Burke was walking down the street. As he came to the intersection, he was thinking about last night, wondering if Carol had really meant what she said.

or try this:

Burke walked down the street. He came to the intersection, thought about last night and wondered if Carol had really meant what she said.

The second version, is objectively better, just like Ayn Rand said. (I jest). But seriously, I think most people would agree that the second version is stronger and better. Why? The use of verbs in their simple form without –ing, make less passive, they are stronger and  more direct.

So, how do you find and kill these little bastards? It’s easy. You can do it one by one, of course. But the best thing to do is a keyword search in your word processor. Just search for “ing” and you’ll be surprised at how often they crop up. (I was shocked the first time I did this, in fact. I had no idea I wrote so many sentences with gerunds in them.) Once you search, all you have to do is reword the sentence, usually by using the infinitive (put “to” in front of the verb) or putting it in the simple past tense. You’ll be amazed at how a little freshening up like this will help your piece.

And what about adverbs?
Some have said that adverbs (words usually ending in “ly” in English) deserve the same treatment as gerunds: get rid of them. Elmore Leonard did not like to use adverbs to modify the verb “said.” That, at least, is a pretty good idea.

I can’t go there with people who think we should get rid of ALL adverbs, but they can be used as a crutch in situations where the reader should have been able to infer how something was being done from the action and the characters. Besides, if you’re getting rid of adverbs, getting rid of adjectives can’t be far behind. Then, you’re only left with nouns and verbs and a very gray world…but I digress.

So, how to get rid of those adverbs? You got it, do a keyword search for “ly” and, again, you’ll be surprised at what crops up. I don’t always ax the adverbs, but I usually do. It’s trickier fixing them because you have to find a way to subtly make it known how things are done without hitting your reader over the head with an adverb.

But isn’t that what the craft part of writing is all about?

See you next time,

Darius

The Craft: Are You a “Plotter” or a “Pantser”?

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

I’ve been thinking a lot about something that came up at RavenCon earlier this year. It’s a question of primary importance to all writers: Are you Plotter or a Pantser?

First, a word of explanation. What is a Plotter? And what a Pantser?indexing plot

A Plotter
A Plotter is someone who who has to plan out each story, scene by scene, before they dive in. The most characteristic element of this way of storytelling is having a detailed outline of every plot point before you sit down to write. This is often done by writing each chapter (or scene) down on an index card and then shuffling or rearranging the cards until they have a consistent, logical flow. This often means the first cards set up a conflict, the middles cards describe rising tension and the final cards give us the climax and resolution. (See the photo for an example of this.)

A Pantser
A Pantser is someone who dives in before knowing how the story will develop. To borrow an old phrase, they’re “flying by the seats of their pants.” A good example of this, I’ve heard, was E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. A vision of a character at the Barabar Caves came to him and he just started writing from there without much of a plot in his head. (I could be wrong about this, so apologies to any Forster fans out there!) Somehow, with the way he was wired that was all he needed and the plot just sort of fell into place from there.

I’ve asked a lot of other writers what the best approach is. And most people seem to say: “You have to find out which one you are.” And there’s only one way to do that: trial and error. Eventually you’ll find out.

Am I a Plotter or a Pantser?
So, I’ve written lots of different stuff at this point. Novels, novellas, short stories. And what have I found? Well, I’m still working it out. But with each story, I’m leaning more and more toward being a Plotter.

Take my latest short story, “P” (I have not added a working title yet, as draft 1 is not done). The story started out as many do: just a character in a situation. And then…Bam! Something happens to this character. Action! But then what happens next? You see, it starts as just a scene, not a story. There’s no backstory to this character.  There’s no ongoing conflict. So, your subconscious starts building it out, starts fleshing out this character and their world. But there’s no order to it. No structure. Your mind starts filling in more and more. And that’s good and well, but it can lead you down blind alleys or to dead ends.

I’ve found that it’s best to stop a moment and do what I call the “CSP+K” prewrite. That is a template for a short story in which I list:

  • C: The Characters
  • S: The Setting
  • P: The Plot
  • +K: The Knowledge I need to write the story. 

In the CSP+K, I used to describe just the basic plot, but increasingly I write the whole plot structure down, point by point. I didn’t use that blown-out approach when I began writing “P.” I wrote the first chapter or two and realized I was headed in the wrong direction. So, I completely stopped the writing process that day and dove into my plot.  I switched chapters, added in small chapters to create bridges and deleted other chapters that did not move forward the plot. I basically took the time to make sure everybody involved—meaning the characters—knew  exactly what was going on and where we’re headed.

With that done, I copied  the basic chapter outlines over into my manuscript. As I write in the manuscript, I delete these short explanations of the action and fill them in with real action and dialogue. If that’s not being a Plotter, I don’t know what is.

I’ve also noticed I’ve done this in other works. Some say it ruins spontaneity.  But so far, I haven’t found that to be the case. I actually write MORE freely because I’m not worried about my story going off the rails. The plot points serve as guide to make sure I don’t go too nuts. But then again, I’m not a Pantser. And what might work for them, would never work for me.

Find What Works for You
At the end of the day, don’t take any of this too seriously…in the sense that this is a system I’ve found that works for me. You might be a Pantser and this would be horrible advice to follow for you. Or you might be a different kind of Plotter, in which case this system wouldn’t work for you either.

My advice? As always: Get Black on White. Find what works for you through trial and  error. Write and keep writing. That’s the only way to find a system that works for you. It might not be easy, but it’s the only way to find your voice and write what you want to write.

Good Luck and until next time…

Keep reading, keep writing,

Darius