It’s been done

Because I haven’t learned my lesson about having to many things on the fire at once, joining my third novel The Copper Witch coming out next year is my fourth, Between the Lines, with REUTS Publications.

Written for the most part in 2009, I remember rather jealously guarding the idea for this novel, which seemed entirely unique at the time. While the world, I still think, is unique–mostly because it’s one I created, and no one shares my exact thoughts (yet)–having more experience with writing, publishing, and books altogether, I have now learned that ideas are relatively cheap. Some are more unique than others, but the idea is not what makes a story. 

And that leads me to today’s post. The question I saw while browsing in the NaNoWriMo forums:

How do you get over the fact that everything’s been done before?” 

As I said above, ideas are cheap. There are a million different ideas out there floating around at given moment and another couple million people ready to write them. Perhaps there’s a brilliant idea out there that the rest of humanity has someone missed, but as of today, I fully believe that if you haven’t found anything out in the world that shares the slightest similarity to your new idea, you probably haven’t yet looked enough.

And so, how do you get over the fact that everything has already been done?

Know that your writing and your characters are what are going to make or break the idea. 

Yes, it is important to have an interesting idea in that you have to be interested in it enough to write it. If you don’t find your story intriguing enough to write, you are never going to actually sit down and get anywhere with it. The fact is, though, even if two writers were fed the same idea, even if they were told to write the same basic plots, their books would not be identical. The characters would be different in how they thought, acted, how they related to one another. All the little things that make a story interesting would reflect the author writing it, not end up as an exact carbon copy.

So write what you like. Write what interests you. Write something brilliant or stupid or derivative. It is who you are as a writer that will make your story unique. If you hold on to that, the fact that everything has already been done but trust in your writing, you’ll always be in good shape.

From Premise to Plot

As I believe I have said before, ideas are the easy part of writing. They are always the bright and shiny bits that bounce around in your head before you get to the nitty-gritty part of actually writing. But what happens when all you have is an idea–not even a true plot? That’s where you have to take your idea from premise to plot.

Now, when it comes to creative writing, I’m all for rule breaking. That’s the creative part, after all–not having to do everything to the letter, messing with grammar, all of those fun bits that make creative writing different from formal essays or business writing. As I have mentioned before, however, you need to know the rules before you can break them. And so, for building a plot, that entails knowing the general elements to a plot.

For those who paid attention to that day in English class, you might have seen plots lain out as a graph that looks something like this:

Basically these plot graphs break the essence of a plot into six (or so) sections:

1) Exposition (explaining your “normal”). Generally this section is one of the shortest parts of your story if you’re following the common advice of “Get to the Action”. This section of the story establishes what is “normal” in your story’s world. This might be what is normal in everyday life, or it might be dragons flying around and wizards having duels. The point of this section is to show what your character considers their normal life. Should nothing happen at this point, there would be no real plot. It would be a character study of how your protagonist goes about their day (generally not that exciting to read).

2) Inciting incident (changing “normal”). The inciting incident is the deviation from the normal. This can be something simple (the character deciding they are unhappy with their life) or catastrophic (terrorists blowing up the character’s hometown and killing the character’s entire family). The inciting incident just needs to get the character moving on their story–and ideally it happens as early as possible so you don’t lose the reader with boring “normal”.

3) Rising Action. Rising Action makes up the bulk of the story. It is a series of events (as shown above) which eventually leads to the climax. As this tends to make the bulk of a plot I will touch on this later.

4) The Climax. The climax is what the entire story has been building to. It’s the final battle with the big bad, the underdog sports team winning the championship, or anything else where your protagonist finally reaches (or learns they will never reach) their main goal that has been driving the story (see below section on rising action).  As the name would suggest, the climax is generally a large, blow out, (often) action-filled section, whatever it ends up being–the main point, however, is that it is definitive. Your protagonist wins or loses based on this moment (to whatever extent a win/loss is possible in your story).

5) Denouement (also called Falling Action like above, regaining “normal”). A denouement is the aftermath of the climax and a return to the “new” normal. Things may not have gone back to how they were at the start of the story (often times things are radically different) but the battle is over, the game is won, your protagonist has done whatever they can and are now going to settle into their new reality (whether that being their world changing, them changing, or everything actually going back to how it was).

6) Conclusion (settling into the new “normal”). Possibly part of the denouement, the conclusion is a (probably) short bit that shows the character living once again in “normal” Sometimes this is an epilogue, sometimes it’s not there at all (such as in open-ended endings). While some graphs show the conclusion as the opposite side of exposition (where it forms a mountain), I personally prefer the graph above, as it doesn’t make it seem like the conclusion must be in the same vein as exposition.

Now, as I said, writers by no means should feel married to this exact lay out for their story–if you can think of something awesome that doesn’t fit into this structure, do it–but most stories follow something of the kind.

Anyway, since the bulk of a story using this structure is spent in rising action, this tends to be the part that really turns a premise into a plot. For example, let’s analyze the first Harry Potter book. Before writing even started, there was a premise (boy wizard goes to magic school). From there you have exposition (life in the normal “muggle” world) and inciting incident (boy learns he’s a wizard/goes to school). There’s the climax (battle with the big bad [Voldemort]). And denouement/conclusion with leaving school for the year. Taking all those bits out, you are left with the bulk of the story–rising action.

So what do you do when you have a premise (or premise and ending) and not much else? You figure out what your character wants. Desires are what fuel action in real life, they’re what fuel story characters. If your characters are entirely content, why are they doing anything other than the boring stuff they were doing to start with? A character has to have a want–even if that want is just to get back to normal after being thrown out of it in the inciting incident. The events shown in rising action can be external (people attacking the protagonist, a natural disaster) but the character needs to be in those positions because of their wants and desires. Perhaps they are attacked while on the road going from point A to point B, but why are they on that road in the first place? Likely because it is a step to reaching whatever desire/goal they have for themselves.

(Note: The climax is the resolution of the character’s ultimate goal, but there should be smaller steps between the inciting incident and the climax. These are either steps to lead to that ultimate goal or smaller goals which generally make for subplots).

And so, long story short, when you’re caught trying to figure out how to plot out your book, stop focusing on the plot, and focus on your characters. Once you know why your characters are doing something, the easier it will be to have them realistically move the plot forward.

And if all else fails, throw in zombies. Zombies always get things moving.

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The Name Game

While working on a separate post for tomorrow, I came to the realization that a number of questions my fellow WriMos ask when looking for plot help in the NaNoWriMo forums have to do with naming, be it a character, tavern, city, or anything else.

I completely understand that. Names are important. They set a tone, and I know I personally can’t develop a character until I have a name for them (I’m just not able to write “X said to Y” like some people can while looking for names, it seems).

Luckily for us writers, the internet abounds with resources to find names (Lucky for my readers, too, or all my minor characters would have the first name that came to mind–which oddly enough tends to be Kyle.) So, in the interest of consolidating all those helpful sites I use when looking for/making up names…

HELPFUL NAMING SITES

Character Names:

behindthename.com: Personally, I consider this site a bit like the Holy Grail of naming resources. Not only do they have an amazingly long list of names (each with a full explanation of the history behind it) but you can sort them by country,  see what names were the most popular in the year your character was born, or even search by meaning. They have also recently started surnames.behindthename.com, which has last names. The list isn’t quite as extensive as the original behindthename site so far, but it’s still a great source.

thinkbabynames.com: Though I am partial to behindthename, thinkbabynames.com is also a good source for first names, including the rarer names behindthename doesn’t have listed. For example where “Me’Shell” might only get you this list of similarly spelled names on behindthename, it’s featured today on thinkbabynames, which will tell you it is a variant of Michelle.

babynamewizard.com: Another useful baby name site. Perhaps most useful is it’s front page “Find a Name” feature, which lets you search for a name based of certain criteria such as “Must start with __” or “Can’t start with __” If you really want an uncommon but traditional sounding name for a character that doesn’t start with B, but ends with an A, this is your site.

census.gov: If you’re looking for relatively common last names (for US-based) characters, this list provides, by percentage, the top ranked last name down to 88799th place. (Sorry Johnson, Smith has replaced you as most popular once again.)

wikipedia.org: Yes, it had to pop up eventually, and now that it isn’t blacked out it’s really quite useful when naming characters, especially (I find) this list of common surnames. You can pick which country your character comes from, and pick one that is currently common in the region.

Place Names:

wikipedia.org: Once again, and top ranking this time. Most of the place names I use actually come from wikipedia. Whether I’m stealing a common town/city name for a middle-of-nowhere US town, finding something French sounding, or making up my own town using generic forms of British/Irish place names, wikipedia is a great site. For example, my made up town of Ardbost? Comes from the generic list on wikipedia (Ard: Height, Bost: Farm. Named for the hill the town was first built on).

Serendipity Place Name Generator: A great place to get random suggestions for made up place names. I generally set it to generate 50 at a time (the most it will) and then pick one/come up with some combination of a few when one strikes my fancy. They also have Fantasy Place Name Generator

Chaotic Shiny Place Name Generator: Another fun place name generator. Also will put in real landmark names so you get fun creations such as “Taelus Glade” and “Dugfresh Pond”

Finally, since I have to give in to my NaNoWriMo Fangirl-ness, I can’t for get the NaNoWriMo Adoption Society. This forum is where any WriMo who can’t use a name, plot, title or anything else they think up is free to leave it for the needy. With how many things are there, if you don’t find a place name, or character name, or anything else you want to use, you’ll at least probably have some idea sparked while going through them all.

Write What You Know

(Pre-Note: I’m planning on doing a YouTube interview answering questions anyone has about writing, editing, or publishing and am currently taking questions to answer over in the NaNoWriMo forums. If you have any of your own, feel free to email me them [jesskdall(a)gmail.com] twitter me [@JessicaDall] or post a comment below).

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Anyway, with that note out of the way…

Yesterday, thanks to a LivingSocial voucher, I was brought along to a shooting range. While I’m not sure I was very good (I was told I was perhaps the most focused shooter at least…) I have now fired a gun (Glock 17). Other than thinking ‘Holy s**t, I’m holding a gun’ it got me to thinking of the old adage “Write What You Know.”

Now, if you’re a writer you probably have heard this saying before. If not, now you have. More than a few people have written articles about it (like here, and here) most outlining the fact that it’s much too easily misunderstood. There’s a reason we write fiction. Most of our real lives are pretty boring. I promise none of the stories I have written are about someone with a generally happy childhood, vanilla high school career, and who now spends most of her time working behind a computer. Sure, that might be a good set up for a book, but until aliens attack, or my generally happy relationship falls apart and sends me off on a three year tour of Europe trying to “find myself” there really isn’t a book there.

The other articles tell you that “Write What You Know” comes from a place telling you to use what you know in real life (your neighborhood, a hobby you know well…) in your writing. That’s something I fully support. Last night, I had a friend complaining to me about a character in a novel taking the train from Union Station in DC to Grand Central in New York. As someone who’s taken the train between DC and New York, I can tell you that’s just not possible. The train goes to Penn Station from DC, not Grand Central. If the author had ever taken that train, they would have known that.

Of course, we can’t be expected to know everything every one of our characters will ever do in a story. We’re all going to get something wrong. And we’re all going to have something published that is wrong because both we and our editors never thought it was wrong. So, we should use what we can from what we know, but then jump and write what we don’t when we can’t know.

So where’s the line?

Honestly, I don’t think there’s any one answer. It depends. If it’s something that can be found out in a simple google search. Do it. It takes five seconds on the Amtrak website to figure out what stations you can get to by train. Need to figure out what classes you can take at Harvard, find the course catalogue, look it up. With Google Street View it’s even possible to actually see what it looks like on University Avenue in St. Paul. Yes we sometimes assume we know things that we shouldn’t, but there is really no excuse to not look into things that you can when you don’t know personally. Especially if you’re writing about a controversial issue. For example, if you want to write about a mental disorder, which you don’t have, you can, but please, please, please actually do your research. You can talk to people who have the disorder, you can read blogs about real people, you can learn about it without having to know it. At least not personally.

Still, there really is nothing that can be firsthand experience. If there’s something important to your story that you have the ability to experience, go do it. I’ve never had many guns in my stories. There just have never been a reason for them to be. But if I had tried to write about them before, either I wouldn’t have been able to give any details (Um, “He shot the gun” Yeah…that works…) or I would have gotten them wrong. A big metal thing that shoots something out of it at 1110ft/sec? (Just looked that up, yep). I expected it to be heavy, and the recoil to try to knock me back. Ok, maybe not that extreme, but I expected to find it harder to hold it out and shoot. Honestly, the hardest parts for me were: 1) I couldn’t get the feel for when the trigger was going to set the gun off, and 2) Every time the shell casing flew out after I shot, it made me completely jump through myself (not the best thing when you’re trying to bring the barrel back to level quickly).

So, write what you know. Learn what you don’t know. And experience what is possible to know. The people who do know will thank you. And, hey, it can be really fun. (If you haven’t gotten to try it, learning how to shoot is a fun thing to get to learn).