A Matter of Choice

Our characters are constantly making choices, from answering the call to action to something as innocuous as deciding what to eat for breakfast. It may not always seem that way from where we sit in the author’s chair, given the illusion of control we have over our stories, but our characters should be facing choices, even if we don’t always dwell on them.

Choices could be binary (between options A or B) or multiple (options A, B, C…X). They could be mutually exclusive (if A is chosen, B is no longer possible) or not (if A is chosen, B is still a possibility).

But I want to focus on the types of choices characters face, and the associated repercussions the decisions can have.

Explicit Choice, Explicit Stakes

This is when your character knows they have a choice to make and have acknowledged it (to themselves or others) in some way. They are also aware of the repercussions of their decision (stakes).

For example, your hero knows if he chooses to fight the bad guy, there’s a chance he could win and save the girl. If he doesn’t fight, the bad guy wins. Those are explicit outcomes.

Explicit Choice, Unknown or Vague Stakes

This is when your character knows they have a choice to make but they are uncertain as to what impact their choice will have on themselves and others.

Think of your traditional call to action. A young man or woman is told they need to undergo training to harness their latent powers/magic/intellect/abilities (think college or grad school for contemporary purposes). There’s an obvious choice here, to train or not, but the stakes here are less certain. Success is not a guarantee if they undergo training. Maybe there are other paths to success that don’t include training. These are vague outcomes.

Now, a call to action moment could certainly have explicit stakes (think “chosen one” tropes), but I personally feel there needs to be some uncertainties, some vagueness to the choice, for it to be dramatically satisfying.

Implicit Choice, Explicit Stakes

This is where your character is unaware/unconscious of the fact that there is a choice to be made. You’re probably thinking: How can that be? Well, let’s start with the fact that we make hundreds upon hundreds of choices everyday (think Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink). Small ones, ones we don’t even realize we’re making. Now think of the way you were raised, beliefs or traditions your parents or caregivers passed on to you that you never had reason to question. Yes, assumptions, ignorance, and to some extent notions of culture and privilege all come into play here. Now you can start to see how there may have been a choice to be made, but your character was unaware of making it or ignorant of other alternatives.

For example, your character grew up as an only child, and therefore is used to doing things autonomously and has what is perceived by others as selfish tendencies. Let’s say they monopolize a conversation at school (an implicit choice since they don’t have to compete for their parent’s attention at home, and that behavior unwittingly carries over into other settings) and in doing so, they cut off someone else who tries to speak, pissing that person off (explicit outcome).

Implicit Choice, Unknown or Vague Stakes

This is where a character is unaware or unconscious of the fact they have a choice to make, and the ramifications of that choice are not immediately apparent.

Let’s return to the college example. Maybe your character is descended from a long line of blue-collar workers. This means they’ve lived their whole life to the cycle of the nearby plant/mill/factory. Their parents worked there, their grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, etc. As soon as they turn 16, they start picking up weekend shifts or work there during the summer.

When it comes time to graduate high school, they just assume they’re going to work at the plant too (implicit choice), never considering the option they could go to college or join the military or spend a year working for Americore. The ramifications of this choice are unknown. Maybe this person will rise through the ranks and manage the plant one day. Maybe the plant will shut down, and it’s harder for the character to translate their skills into another trade or go back to school. Maybe they’re stuck on the ground floor for the rest of their life. These are all uncertain outcomes, based on a implicit choice.

***

For all of these different types of choices, there’s a lot you can play with. Your character’s deliberations leading up to a pivotal choice could be a dramatic, angst-ridden ride. The impact their choice has on other characters and the plot of your story could also be as big as you can make it, both positive and negative.

But don’t forget about the quiet choices, the ones that add texture and nuance to your characters. Consider showing how your characters learn from the choices they make, and the differences in how a lesson learned from an implicit or explicit choices will affect them.

Happy writing!
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Transitioning into a Second Draft

I discovered the short story I had a sneaking suspicion was actually a novel last fall is, in fact, a novel. And I’m 90% done drafting it. I have the last section roughly outlined, and should finish up the first draft by the end of the month if not sooner.

And it needs to get done by then. So I can revise it, and expand it, and send it to my CPs, all in time before Taos Toolbox come June when I plan on sharing the novel with the other participants. It’s overwhelming when I look at all those goals smooshed into a single sentence, but the terror is keeping me going, keeping me productive, as I pound out ~2k a day to get there.

But even though the first draft isn’t completed yet, I’m already thinking about what I’ll need to do to prepare for the second pass. I don’t have the time to set the story aside for a couple of months – even though I am planning on a break here and there for writing short stories.

So I need to be focused and smart in terms of how I proceed.

Research 

I’ve been doing a lot of research on an as-needed basis as I’ve been drafting, but there’s still a lot more to be done to really make the story come alive. Aspects of the world I’ve created need to be fleshed out and tied more firmly to plot elements. Parts of the story take place where I live currently, so field trips to area attractions and museums and the like are good too for getting at those concrete sensory details to anchor the story action and make it as authentic as possible. Geography, language, history, science, politics…I’m drawing on it all and want it represented as accurately as I’m capable of doing in this second draft.

Description

This is one of those things I have to consciously incorporate when I write. I usually get so caught up in action and dialogue that description usually falls by the wayside. So in my second draft, I know I’ll need to really pay attention for opportunities to describe my world and my characters. I’ll be drawing on my research for one, but now that I’ll have a completed draft, it’ll be easier for me to go back and accurately depict my characters as well. Usually, I don’t really have a good sense of my characters until I finish the first draft, where I can then chart their character arc over the whole story. So on this second pass, I’ll be taking a hard look at how I describe and characterize the story players throughout the book.

Stakes

Partly because of the way I’ve chosen to structure this book (for now) and partly because I’ve been so focused on getting to the end of the first draft, stakes aren’t as fully explored as they’ll need to be if I want to attempt to publish this story. In my second draft, I’ll be taking a hard look at each chapter, each section of the story, to determine ways to consistently raise the stakes and ratchet up the tension as the story progresses. It’s close now, but it needs to be even more pronounced to achieve that page-turning quality in what’s turned out to be a more character-driven sci-fi adventure (I know, I’m still wondering how that happened too).

Plot Expansion

Because I’ve been flying through my initial draft (for me at least), there are some huge gaps where I’ve left out entire scenes or have only provided the barest skeleton of story action. All of those areas will need to be fleshed out and expanded. There’s a good chance what I discover in writing these new scenes will need to be incorporated elsewhere in the story as well so everything fits together naturally – I don’t want things shoehorned or appended onto the story at this stage. Things should hang together at this point. And if they don’t, I know I have more work to do.

Sentences

This probably goes without saying, but when I’m drafting I don’t always have my most beautiful prose flowing. I’m trying to get from point A to point Z as fast as possible, and if the right word or phrase isn’t readily available, I skip it and move on. On the second pass, I need to root out every instance of lazy writing, cut clichés and awkward phrasing, and instead create laser-sharp prose chock full of precise details. Intentional writing, made a heck of a lot easier once I have my first draft done and understand the shape of the story.

Keep your fingers crossed for me as I finish up my first draft and decide what to do with it.

What do you look for improving on a second pass? How do you prepare to revise a first draft?
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When Novel Ideas Masquerade as Short Stories

I’m coming off a summer of insane productivity. For me.

And although I’ve done some work on two of my novel-length projects, the name of the game has been short stories.

Five of them in the 4-6k range, all speculative fiction. Two were written before the summer, and I’ve been revising and soliciting feedback on them. The other three were drafted this summer. One was accepted by an anthology. The remaining two I hope to have submission-ready by next month. Fingers crossed.

I’ve started to workshop the pieces with like-minded members of my local meetup writing group – a breakout group of those who were actively pursuing publication and were already at a certain level with their craft. This group of ladies has provided some hugely helpful feedback (even though we all write very different things).

Something that has been consistent in their comments is that each short story could be so much more. Sometimes that means I have to flesh out the world or the story a bit more. But most of the time it means they think I should be writing a novel instead of a short story. That my short stories are novels in disguise.

I’ve talked before about my difficulties in writing short – and believe me, I’m aware of the irony that my other publishing credits are flash fiction.

What’s a girl to do? Well, I’m not opposed to writing novels, obviously. In fact, my “natural length” is probably more novel than short story (and writer Juliette Wade has a great post on this: Natural Length and the Fractal Nature of Stories). The problem is I’ve got two speculative fiction projects already queued up. So converting any of the stories in this current batch into a longer work won’t be happening any time soon.

Then there’s the advice that writing short can be a great way to jumpstart your career (see Lydia Sharp’s post The Benefits of Writing Short and The Long on the Short post from Magical Words). And that’s what I was trying to do with these stories that I’ve turned out this year.

So, as I revise, I’m working hard to do the following:

1) Streamline story elements as much as possible without compromising my view of the story world

This may mean simplifying plot points or removing certain features of the world – especially if they open up a whole host of questions that my story doesn’t address. I often add in aspects that I think flesh out the worlds in a shorthand way, but oftentimes these are the same things my writing group calls me out on. As Juliette Wade points out in Worldbuilding for Short Stories: “in a short story, you have very little room to explain or explore. Everything you do has to be done in as few words as possible.” So Poe’s assertion that every element of a short story should work in concert to achieve a unity of effect is something I need to keep in mind.

2) Find ways to develop character without developing character

Calm down. I’m not advocating one-dimensional characters. But in SF/F stories, where worldbuilding and story action demand a not insignificant portion of the story, that doesn’t leave you with a whole lot of room to devote to your characters. This is where voice is so important – and it’s no surprise that all the short stories I’m working on are written in first person. I vowed at the beginning of the year to write in first person to help me really sink into my characters and that’s proven doubly helpful in terms of developing character without slowing the story action down.

3) Analyze all the themes/issues/plot points and decide if they are best served by the short story form

This is always tough. I have to decide if I can fit everything into one story. Or, if I remove some elements, will the story be stronger? If not, maybe I should just save it for a novel. I fear this is already the case with one of my short stories, but I will give it the old college try at keeping it short. Besides, more than other genres, lots of SF novels started out as short stories, and I’m just following the trend…

Have you ever been told you have a novel masquerading as short story? Did you end up paring your story down? Or did you turn it into a novel? Happy writing!
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Description and Your Characters’ Lens

I’m in what I think is the final round of revisions for my historical romance. I’ve said this before, but hopefully, it’s true this time.

I’ve been incorporating feedback from my critique partners, trying to eradicate nefarious narrative distance, and have found a group of local writers to serve as betas as I get closer and closer to the finish line (the finish line in this scenario is the querying phase).

One thing that came up after my betas read the first section of my novel was the need for more physical description of place and character – something both my CPs alluded to as well. Admittedly, description is tough for me – I find long passages of description boring as a reader and tend to keep the description in my own writing as concise and functional as possible. Especially in my historical romance, where many details are the result of conjecture despite the research I’ve done. Basically I’m terrified of getting my wrists slapped by a history buff for any assumptions I’ve made about the time period.

This is complicated by the fact that my heroine is already well versed in my story’s setting, so it doesn’t make sense for her to spend her “stage time” waxing on about the castle where she lives, the people she interacts with. They just are to her. Familiar. Taken for granted. A given.

But to my hero (and newcomer to this world), these things are worth mentioning as he takes in the sights and sounds and passes judgment on them.

Therefore I’ve created a rule for myself: In a character’s POV, the description is going to emphasize primarily new information.

Character ——> New Information

So, in my story, my characters will be focusing on different things in their POV scenes:

Heroine —-> hero and his men
(since she is already familiar with the setting)

Hero ——-> heroine and setting
(since he is already familiar with his men)

What’s left over is context, exposition, backstory. As well as character’s thoughts, emotion, and physical markers of emotion, which to me is different from physical descriptions of characters and setting — the type of description I’m focusing on for this post.

Unlike a story in first-person, where all the information must reach the reader through one perspective, in dual-POV stories (like most romances published today) the choice of what is described, when, and by whom, can not only move the story forward but speak to character as well.

As I revise and look for places to reduce narrative distance and add description, I’m trying to keep in mind the notion that my characters will be more aware of others’ actions and their surroundings, and place less importance on their own actions:

Therefore, when I’m writing a scene from my hero’s POV, he might acknowledge the fact he smiles to some comment another character makes and leave it at that. But when the heroine smiles, he’ll pass judgment on that action, no matter how slight. Does her lip curl up? Can he see her teeth? Does it remind him of the kiss they shared the scene before?

Not only does this help me vary physical cues, but enhances my hero’s perspective (and by extension his character) and give me an opportunity to flesh out parts of my novel that need more description.

This is a subtle shift, but an important one for someone like me who tends to let the reader’s imagination do the heavy lifting in terms of fully visualizing scenes.

What ways do you use your characters’ lens to pass on information to the reader?

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Capturing the Crisis

Something unexpected happened last week. A wildfire blazed through the open space that borders our property. Because our house is right next to the gate to the open space, my husband and I had a first row seat as panicked visitors drove off, police cars and fire trucks drove in, and the local news affiliates tagged along to document the blaze.

Now I don’t want to say this was a huge deal — not with earthquakes, tsunamis, and wars still commanding the headlines. No one was hurt. Strong winds blew the flames and smoke away from the homes bordering the open space. The fire was contained in a relatively swift manner.

But the potential it had was terrifying. What if the winds were blowing in a different direction? What if the kids who allegedly started the fire chose a different park location to mess around? What if someone, tired after a long day of hiking, got caught up in the blaze?

Around 7pm, we saw smoke. Police arrived, fire trucks soon followed. By 7:30pm, Eyewitness News cameras were set up and collecting footage. The other affiliates trickled in after that. At 10:30pm the news crews finally left since they stayed on location for the 10 o’clock news. Fire trucks worked through the night. The next morning they were still there, assessing the damage.

In total, only 10 acres were destroyed, upsetting the natural ecosystem and the hiking and biking trails that wind through it. Now that I’m over the surprise, I wanted to share what I learned from the fire, which may help you if, god forbid, you find yourself in a similar situation or just want an extra dose of realism for a crisis moment in your own WIP.

1. Always call 911 – Don’t assume someone else has done so. With the park full of people, I was shocked my husband was only the second person to call it in after seeing flames from one of our windows. You may have heard of something called the Bystander Effect, where people don’t offer help when other people are present, ostensibly under the impression that someone else will. Is your character someone who takes charge, no matter what, or someone who lets others do the work for them?

2. A lot can happen in a short amount of time – Like I said, we saw smoke around 7pm. 15 minutes later, the fire trucks finally showed up. In addition to smoke, flames had encompassed the site by then – big ones – that exacerbated an already intense situation. When writing a crisis moment in you stories, use pacing to your advantage. Short, choppy sentences. Sensory details. Never forget the unpredictability of Mother Nature, and use it to your advantage to up the stakes.

3. People are still people, even in a crisis – Before the police arrived, there were still jerks trying to get into the park to see what was going on.  Once the cops showed up, people would approach officers and pester them for details. One policeman said his time was better spent on fire containment, not answering questions. My point is if your character is a jerk before a crisis, chances are, he’ll still be one during and after it. There were no magical transformations. If anything, someone’s defining characteristics (good and bad) become even more pronounced in such situations.

4. Fire in particular is compelling – People inched as close as they could to the line the cops were maintaining. One group of hikers snuck through using another trail to see what was going on before they were called off. Even in the blurry pictures I managed to take, my eye is constantly drawn to the bright spots, to the flames. So when capturing your crisis in words, do not neglect the visual component. This doesn’t mean you overlook the other senses, but remember the cinematic quality such events can have.

5. Never underestimate the appeal of getting on TV – Because the TV crews were set up essentially in my yard, I saw how the reporters found people for televised reactions — they just had to turn around to find those who had crept up behind them, in some cases making small talk with the cameraman or reporters, kissing up for their chance to share their impressions. Is your character someone who will push his way towards the reporters or someone who hangs back (like me) to get away from the spotlight?

6. Bystanders do two things – They either parrot the information they think they know about what’s going on and/or articulate their association to the situation – in this case the area under fire. “We live right here.” “I run on the trails every morning.” “Well, I mountain bike here on the weekends.” “I remember a few years ago how about another fire that happened here.” And so on. People feel connected to place, then share that connection to justify why they are looking on, helplessly. It can devolve into a pissing match (“This place is more important to me.” “No, me.”) but ultimately, it’s people expressing their connection to the tragedy. What connects your character to the crisis in your story? How does it make them feel? How can you use the unvalidated information people parrot back and forth to drive your narrative?

7. There will always be looky-loos – People were driving past the open space entrance for hours after the fire trucks showed up on the scene. The next day, people kept stopping by to see for themselves. Never underestimate the compulsion to see something with your own eyes. What’s the difference for your character whether they experience something firsthand or not? Would they want to see for themselves or accept other people’s accounts of the crisis?

8. You will quickly learn what is most important to you
– After I saw the smoke, my first instinct was to gather up essentials, in case we had to evacuate in a hurry. Within five minutes, I assembled a bag with my laptop and notebooks (of course!); documents like the deed to our house, birth certificates, passports, marriage licenses, insurance; a box of mementos; and my ipod since I’m such a music snob. It was just one bag, but those items told me a lot about myself. What would your characters put in their bag?

***
I hope no one has to experience such crisis moments first-hand, but that doesn’t mean we can’t write about them. And I hope this post helps you do just that.

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