Solutioning: I Do it All the Time

I said back in my SITREP:June post that I was going to get back into regular posts, though how regular that will be remains to be seen. So this post marks the first of new series I’ve wanted to do for a while.

Welcome to the Engineering, School, and Writing Series, which is going to be about me reminiscing on the time spent in school and in my job, taking the lessons I learned there, and examining how those lessons affect me today as a writer. I have no idea if this will be helpful to anyone else, but one thing I have learned through the power of the internet is that unique ideas are hard to come by, so I’m quite certain I’m not the first person to think of these lessons in this way. But I suspect there are plenty of writers out there who could benefit from these musings, if only because it may put into words something they have been feeling for a while.

So, today is Post #1 in that series. I hope you find it interesting.

Continue reading “Solutioning: I Do it All the Time”

Art Crossing Barriers

For anyone familiar with arts programs, it’s an accepted truism that art can cross boundaries which other types of human interaction can’t; or at least that art can do so more easily. A quick Google search of “art breaking down barriers” yields the following four top results.

Each looks at this concept from a different angle, and while 4 search results do not a scientific review make, its something I personally agree exists.

Today, I wanted instead to share a couple of examples of how I’ve seen of art, particularly of the entertainment variety, pulling communities together through the connection of the internet.

Continue reading “Art Crossing Barriers”

My Reflections on Writing Excuses 13.40 – Fixing Character Problems – Part 1

Ooo! Episode 13.40 looks interesting! I like this idea of having many teams answering the same questions, so I hope this works out. There’s been a lingering problem that Writing Excuses has had the last few seasons – the same answers to what amount to the same questions. At the end of the day, after a while, you find yourself in the same rut of questions about story as last season and the season before that. I think that was a big driver in past seasons to do the Master Class and the new teams this year.

But this year, we’re in a sort of twilight area – the new teams are great with energy, but their viewpoints are kinda…basic? Continue reading “My Reflections on Writing Excuses 13.40 – Fixing Character Problems – Part 1”

My Reflections on Writing Excuses 13.38 – How to Find and Use Alpha Readers

Been awhile since I was caught up enough on my podcasts to be getting in reaction posts, but thankfully all caught up on Writing Excuses, so here’s Episode 13.38.

Alpha/Beta readers and how to use them. Having only really done one book through readers, my process isn’t very set yet. But for the most part, my process is similar to the podcasters. Alpha reader is one other friend who is a librarian/author who reads a lot in my chosen genres. I found her through NaNoWriMo, I think through the cabins that are done during Camp NaNo in April/July. We connected up and she has been a great champion and supporter who manages to balance good critiques with plenty of cheerleading. Beta readers include some family and local friends, and recently members of my writing group, though I think they will move forward into alpha read status in the future.

Finding them all felt like luck, but in line with what the podcast recommended – networking with other writers (in my case, through NaNoWriMo) and sending out invites to those close to me to see who would have the time and desire to do it. I’ve had lots of people accept enthusiastically, but who end up not reading it. Probably about 50% fall out rate in that sense. Those people I will ask again for the next novel just because they say they want to help, but I have a core that I trust who give me the right feedback.

As for getting back the answers I want, I’m very much in the same camp as Valynne – I know my strengths and weaknesses as a writer and I’m actively looking for people to call me out on my weaknesses. I know I do big picture premise well, along with story structure, narrative threads, and action scenes. I’m also pretty good with the logical inferences that come from extending a technology or creating a magic system. Where I struggle is making characters memorable and anything descriptive. So I ask my readers to look specifically at my characters and locations to make sure they’re striking enough. And I always ask about the emotional beats and about the things that already work to make sure I don’t loose those or that I haven’t blinded myself on a topic.

I also generally send an entire manuscript rather than chapters/scenes just because I’d like a one and done, but that might change more as I try to level up faster.

So far, it’s worked out well.

The homework challenge from the episode was to send something to alpha/beta readers that I’ve done recently. I do have a completed manuscript sitting, but I’d been calling it a trunk novel because I didn’t think the story worked. But then again, who knows? I’ll see if anyone one my writing crew wants to read it or if my library friend wants to take a crack at it. Maybe it’s better than I’m giving myself credit for. Or maybe it’s more salvageable than I realize.

Making Time vs. Making

An aspect I struggle with in nearly every facet of life revolves around setting aside time to do something – time to exercise, finishing projects at my day job, volunteering in the community, fixing the plumbing, visiting friends for a game night, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

And that has been how I addressed creating – making time to make. Waiting until my kids go to bed, then using that time to draft and edit, because I didn’t want to take from family time. Even my interests around personal productivity have this pernicious undercurrent of trying to fit more into less time.

But what if when I sit down to write, I use that as a time to engage my children in the process of creation. Let them see me work, struggle, fail, push through. Ask their thoughts about word choice, plot points, character motivation? What if making became part of my family time, a part of play, or a part of learning? Would that change how I create or impact my motivations? I think it would.

What might you decide to do if you could just make instead of having of make time? And what if you didn’t have to change anything except your own paradigm?

woman pouring down a brown paint
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Updates and Reflections on Writing Excuses 13.12/13.13/13.14


Catch-all catch-up post today while I’ve got some mental time to focus. Warning: this is longer since I’ve got so much to catch up on.

First to announce that I have finished my line edit pass on my novel and will be posting the call for beta readers within the next few days, so if you are interested, watch for that post and the instructions for getting access.

Next up, I’ve had a lot of thoughts running around in my brain about trustworthy writers and a community supporting them, so I’ll be kicking off a series on that soon.

Third – reaction posts for Writing Excuses.

13.12 – Q/A on Heroes, Villains, and Main Characters

I figured for the Q/A, I’d just answer the questions.

  • How do you make planned power increases not seem like you’re making it up on the spot?
    • Foreshadowing. With sufficient foreshadowing (this could mean as much or as little as needed), pretty much any planned power increase/superpower/level up/character change can be revealed and it not feel like you’re making things up on the spot.
    • For me, the biggest way to know if I need to fix my foreshadowing is to give it to readers.
  • What do you do when your villain is more interesting/engaging than your hero?
    • I think this may be more a problem of a particular type of story. I tend to write character/relationship stories more than idea/plot stories. I think idea/plot stories can suffer from having boring heroes/main characters because the story isn’t about them, but about the problem they have to solve.
    • This is where I think Mary’s approach of using the nested MICE quotient can solve this issue – if your villain is becoming more interesting, maybe you need to work out a character story for your hero so that there is something interesting about them that doesn’t require require them solving the plot.
  • How do you know when a character is unnecessary and needs to be removed from the story, or killed off in the story?
    • Do they show up in more than one scene and do they do more that just deliver exposition/news.
    • I had this show up during my cut edit in Jan/Feb. I had a character I thought I could cut from the first scenes because I thought I only had her delivering exposition, but had forgotten she showed up later as a complication to be exploited by my antagonist against my other mains. Removing her early removed my ability to leverage her later when I needed her as a way to ratchet up the pressure.
  • What tricks do you use when you want the reader to mistakenly believe a character is a hero, rather than a villain?
    • Haven’t done this, so can’t comment.
  • Which is more fun for you: creating a villain, or creating a hero?
    • Neither – as I’ve mentioned before, I have a really had time thinking of my characters that way. I much prefer labels of protagonist and antagonist. And what is most fun for me is figuring out how those two will relate in their relationship – friends, enemies, family, etc.
  • How many side characters can you reasonably juggle in a novel?
    • Me at my current level? – 3
  • What are the drawbacks to making your villain a POV character?
    • Have only writing protag and side character POVs, so can’t comment.
  • If your villain doesn’t show up until late in the story, how do you make their eventual appearance seem justified?
    • If I reword this as “If  your secondary antagonist shows up late,” then I can answer, and the answer is the same as the first – foreshadowing. In Betrayed, I have some very big consequences affecting the world that resulted from the actions of this secondary antagonist and they show very early – second scene.
    • The main characters were aware of the results, but didn’t know anything about this character. When my secondary antag shows up at 2/3rds through and all those consequences get tied back to this person, my readers now have a name to go with all that stuff they’ve been reading about.
  • How do you get readers to like a character who is a jerk?
    • I tried this in my trunk novel The Liegiver, but I don’t think I did it well, so I don’t think I’m yet qualified to answer.

 13.13 – Character Voice

I feel like this is a topic that comes up a lot on the podcast. It isn’t something I normally think about – when writing or reading – but I can see how it can be effective. One of my level-up moments came when reading Brandon’s Wax and Wayne series – Wayne has a very defined character voice and it works to set him apart, but what I really like is Brandon uses this voice to inject humor without needing to “tell jokes”. The humor comes only from how Wayne sees others.

I want to get better as this.

13.14 – Character Nuance

This podcast goes hand-in-hand with something I learned while listening to Robert McKee’s Story. I have this from my notes I took while listening to McKee:

  • Character and Plot are one and the same
    • function of plot structure is to provide more and more choices for the character to make under pressure
    • function of character is to make choices that seem rational to their internal self within that structure.
  • Character design begins with two primary aspects: characterization and true character
    • characterization: sum of all observable qualities
    • true character is behind this mask of characterizations – who they are really
    • KEY TO TRUE CHARACTER: true character can only be expressed through choice in dilemma

What McKee said is just a restatement of what I think Amal and Mary expressed – contradiction within a character is not necessarily contradiction if you can show how that contradiction plays out within the choices that character makes within the framework of the plot.

I think a lot of what Brandon and Maurice said point towards the second main bullet – the hats we were and the way we interact are part of those characterizations. How Maurice talks with other writers versus family in Jamaica are observable characteristics. But who they actually are would come from the choices they’ve made under pressure. Example from Brandon’s life that he’s talked about on the podcast – he’d written a dozen novels before his first one sold and spent his evenings writing while working the desk at a hotel. That pressure of having failure after failure and yet choosing to continue on showed some of the true character that is Brandon Sanderson.

The other reaction I have is to the homework – and a reminder that while “personality test” are fun, Myers-Briggs/Sorting Hat/Color Code-type stuff doesn’t really hold water when studied empirically. One that does have scientific backing is the IPIP-NEO test of the Five Personality Domains. And honestly, if you could go through and at least figure out where on the spectrum in each of the five domains your character is, you’d be in good shape.

My Reflections on Writing Excuses 13.11 – Writing Secondary Characters Charlaine Harris

First immediate reaction upon listening to the episode – THAT is a wonderful accent.

Second, I was a struck by the idea that secondary characters were mostly to be considered within the course of a series, that they gave you someone to promote or focus on in later books.

I don’t think that was the intention and I very well may be misunderstanding some of the episode. It just seemed to me that most of the conversation about writing secondary characters centered on the idea of using them else where in a story universe. Inner me reacted, What about all those stories that are stand alone? Are secondary characters not important there?

After I calmed my inner self down, I tried to go bigger picture. When I’ve worked on secondary characters, do I think of them in terms that make them bigger than just the scenes they appear in? Do they have more presence than just delivering that line or doing that action? I think part of that has to do with “backstory” and part with how much impact they have on the plot.

But for me, secondary characters are easiest to write when I think about how they interact with other characters. Unless they get their own POV, secondary characters are only going to be seen when my POV character is also present. If I were to eventually 3rd person omniscient, then this might not apply, but for all the stories I’ve done, this has been true. So, for those moments of interaction, what can I do to make that scene more engaging?

Part of that comes down to the underlying craft of making sure that scenes are always pulls double or triple duty – if you work to make the scenes impactful, I think the secondary characters benefit from this same work.

I go back to Maurice’s approach from the previous episode – if the character get’s a name, they get worked up and fleshed out. I think I do something similar. There’s something about giving a character a name that almost demands that they have a backstory, that they be thought of as characters.

Which brings us to our question of the day: What secondary characters from stand-alone works do you most remember?

Let us know below.

My Reflections on Writing Excuses 13.09 – Quick Characterizations and 13.10 – Handling a Large Cast

Two reactions in one today as I struggle to catch up. One of the few eternal truths I’ve believe I’ve encountered is that I will always think I can’t be busier and yet, another month arrives to prove me wrong. Quick Characterizations and Handling a Large Cast.

Of the two, I gravitated more to the discussions of the Large Cast episode, not so much because I write sprawling stories with hundreds of characters, but because there was a lot of pristine talk of craft and process. I am a process nerd (as evidenced from my series on Productivity Methods) and so hearing how other people do things is great – it allows me to pick and choose from established methods that others have found and iterate to my heart’s content. Brandon opening up about how to handle a cast of thousands was delightful and I loved how eager and breathless both Mary and Amal were at hearing the numbers that he threw out. Seriously: 2400 characters in the Wheel of Time? Holy crap!

Of course that made me go back and start figuring out how many named characters I have in my novel – which, including the epilogue, is 12. Which is staggering! I had no idea it was that many. Granted, many of them are only in a few scenes and really are background characters that will get moments in future books in the series, but I really was surprised to find I had that many.

I also very much liked hearing how Maurice takes the time to give full characterizations to anyone he names. I don’t know that I’ll take that just yet, but I may need to in my next story because I want that story to be much more character driven.

Using spreadsheets to track character movements and wikis to coordinate continuity and character sheets so “roll play up” a character just confirms to me that no one approach is “right” for writing. If it works for you, use it. If not, look around to steal from others.

I find in my own work that I am more like Mary – I consciously think about how many characters I can handle with my “hands” on stage and not get too cluttered. As a reader, I hate scenes that have 5 or 10 characters all in room doing things because I can’t hold them all in my head at once. So, unconsciously, that’s how I write as well.

For the Quick Characterizations episode, I really enjoyed the idea of finding an verbal “silhouette test” to do with characters. In my current work which I’m revising again (line edits – joy!) I think I can safely say that all of my characters would pass a silhouette test with regards to word choice and personality. I think I even was able to make sure I described them as visually distinct too. But this wasn’t something that I arrived at by choice – another of those unconscious approaches because I’d seen it done in other fiction. I’m looking forward to using the silhouette exercise in combination with Maurice’s character sheets in my next book to see how that flows together.

The other point I like was Brandon’s “peekaboo” moments where he said he allows a side character to have a moment to pop out of the rest of the story and do something completely “them” in that moment. I personally can’t think of specific moments from his fiction that I remember off hand, but as I’m reading/re-reading, I’ll be watching for them to see how they affect my judgement/reaction to a character.

That’s all for now.

What do you do to quickly introduce characters and make them pop on the stage? Any particular differences in your approach to handling a cast – large or small – that differed from the podcasters? Drop a note in the comments below!


The Sea of Inventory and Writing

A quick random thought that I had tonight as I work thorough line edits on Betrayed. I just completed my 10% cut last month and once I started working on my synopsis document, I realized that my prose showed the scars of all the chopping I had done. Which wasn’t surprising – while I had tried to fix as I went, the priority was on killing words, not being pretty.

So, I started a rapid line level edit fixing bad words, making sure the scenes flow nicely, correcting pacing, and doing some general prettifying of words.

I’m less than four chapters in and I’ve already cut another 600 words. In the grand scope of things, at that rate, I’ll cut another 2% or more. It was murder to cut 10% and now, without almost no effort, more is flying off.

As I sat marveling at how this was happening I was reminded of a concept I learned from my Lean Implementer course. Background: Lean manufacturing/business principles grew out of the Toyota Production System that transformed them from small Japanese car producer to the largest car manufacturer in the world.

One of the principles taught in the course was the idea of the Sea of Inventory.

The Sea of Inventory posits that if you overproduce, you get so concerned with the product  you are mired in that you can’t see the wastes in your process. So one of the first goals of any production system is to eliminate overproduction and reduce the depth of your “sea”. As you do, your “rocks” of waste become more and more obvious and can be targeted easily. And the more you reduce overproduction, moving closer to just-in-time production, the more waste you expose.

Image showing an boat floating on water representing level of inventory, over hidden rocks representing various types of process waste, such as breakdowns, rejects, supplier delays, transport delays, etc.
I told you it was hastily drawn.

The reason producers tend to keep the sea high is because when we see stuff, we immediately assume that all must be fine – wastes are out of sight and therefore out of mind.

In writing, I think this idea can be a big side benefit of doing a 10% cut. Yes, there are craft reasons for doing the cut practice such as the creation of better habits which I believe almost any writer could benefit from. But a byproduct of the cut is that it reveals wastes in your writing – you lower the Sea of Words and now the weak word choices, bad pacing, redundancies, and sloppy sentences become more obvious because there is less padding around them. You expose them to your internal editor’s scalpel.

And thus the cutting continues.