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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Decisions, Decisions

I’ve had a hard time recently trying to decide where I should focus my efforts, now that critiques are winding down on my historical romance.

After some deliberation, where I read through every scrap of text I generated for my other novel-length WIPs, I finally decided to go with the mostly completed, extremely flawed SF novel. It’s ok to applause – it was a very tough decision.

It’s the second of two SF novels I have in the works. The first is set in the far far future. I got about a quarter of the way into it before I put on the breaks. I was dealing with so many futuristic concepts and assumptions, I needed to take a step back in time and suss out how things got the way they did. The result was a new story, the second SF story, that I drafted last summer, set in the not-so-distant future.

It was easier to manage in terms of worldbuilding, where I only had to focus on a few changes from present time, instead of a whole milieu. And good practice. But as my post Exorcising Demons from a while back can attest, the project was not without flaws. Once I completed the first draft, I realized the story had too much of a romantic arc and was more political than I originally envisioned. I also needed to add in a third POV character, which I’ve since done.

Now the story is a lot closer to where it needs to be, but there’s still a ways to go. I’ve dreamed up new aspects to my characters, more subplots, and a twist on the true villain of the story, which means basically the last third of the draft needs to be thrown out and rewritten. Yay. Not.

But I like this story. I think about it a lot. It’s essentially a near-future caper, with a wide cast of characters who keep calling out to me. And I’m having way too much fun incorporating future technology and the like into the storyline to stop now.

Even if it never goes beyond my hard drive, I feel like I have to finish this story properly. The potential is there, and I have to hope my writing potential is up to the challenge.

Wish me luck!
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Resource Roundup – NaNoWriMo Edition

In case you’ve been living under a rock, November is National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo or simply NaNo for short. 50,000 words in 30 days (1,667 words/day). Whether you are sailing along or have already found yourself in troubled waters, consider this your one-stop-shop for NaNoWriMo resources when the going gets tough.

As with previous Resource Roundups (Finding the Right Word, Conjuring Up Titles, and Crafting Dialogue), I focused on online resources. There were a ton of posts out there, which I’ve gone through and evaluated for their usefulness. But if you’ve come across other valuable resources, please tell me about them in the comments, and I’ll include them when I add this to my Resource Roundup page on the sidebar.

Post Series: 

Write Anything‘s NaNoWriMo Workshop by contributor Karen covers planning your NaNo project in addition to specific aspects of craft so crucial to storytelling. She pulls the best bits from numerous books on craft and technique to give NaNo participants a helping hand.

Find, and Flush Out, an Idea
Setting It Up
Point of View
Constructing Scenes

NaNoWriMo Boot Camp courtesy of Agent Nathan Bransford is a must read, if only because Bransford condescended to write about NaNo in the first place. Besides, you should be reading his posts on craft and publishing anyway. He has 4,660 Goggle followers (and counting) for a reason.

Choosing the Right Idea
Goals and Obstacles
Editing As You Go

Countdown to NaNoWriMo by Paulo Campos at yingle yangle gives you tried and true advice from a NaNoWriMo veteran. When you hit the wall, Campos’s posts provide options for moving forward.

Part 1: Winding Up Your Writing Clock
Part 2: Why Outlining Your Novel Is Essential
Part 3: Outlining A Novel Worth Reading
Part 4: Your Outline Will Fail
Part 5: Making the Most Out of A NaNoWriMo Crisis
Part 6: Making A Mess of A NaNoWriMo Crisis
Part 7: Why NaNoWriMo Naysayers Should Please Shut Up
Part 8: So Your NaNoWriMo Novel Sucked

Stand Alone Posts:

The Pros and Cons of NaNoWriMo – Gives a great overview of the benefits of participating and the trade-offs you’ll make when you lock yourself away to reach the goal.

NaNoReaMo – Author Natalie Whipple decides she’s going to spend November reading instead of writing.

Putting the NANO in NaNoWriMo – An alternative take on what “NaNo” really means.

NaNo Checklist – The title says it all. Make sure you haven’t forgotten anything.

6 Golden Rules of NaNoWriMo -When you start questioning where your story’s headed, read this for a reality check, courtesy of editor Victoria Mixon.

9 Ways to Prepare for National Novel Writing Month – Another post from Write Anything to make sure you’re ready for NaNo.

Other NaNoWriMo resources from those who know:

***Please let me know in the comments if you’ve found a NaNoWriMo resource that should also be included. Thanks!
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Feedback Frenzy

I’m always vexed to learn I’m not perfect.

Yesterday was no different when I received my feedback on my entry for the Golden Rose contest. I already knew I wasn’t a finalist but that was ok since I’d be getting back critiques from three different judges (two published, one unpubbed). I chose to enter this contest for that very reason because there’s no one who writes romance let alone historical romance in my writing groups. So with this contest, I would finally be getting critiques from my so-called peers.

Overall my scores were pretty good, confirming my gut feeling that I’m close and getting closer everyday. But where one judge liked my secondary characters, another thought they were two-dimensional. Where one liked my clean prose but thought I had no style, the other thought my style effectively conveyed mood and tone. One thought my storyline tried and true, another compelling. Hmm…

But two things the three judges had more or less in consensus:

  •  I’m still doing more telling than showing in a few instances
  • After an opening scene chock full of external conflict, internal conflict takes over and affects the overall pacing.

No bueno. But instead of a “I’m just not that into your book,” this time I have actionable advice I can use on another revision. All for 50 bucks. I’ll take it.

One thing I found interesting about this whole process was the unpublished judge was harsher than the two published judges. Resulting in a difference of about 10 points. Maybe she didn’t get the story; maybe she’s still a bit green when it comes to craft and critique. But I have to wonder if we unpublished masses are harder on each other because there’s so much competition out there these days. Manuscripts must be perfect like never before for writers to break into the market. A sobering thought.

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Exorcizing Demons

You may recall from my list of WIPs in my post “How Do You Prioritize Your Writing?” I recently completed the first draft of a science fiction novel.

It’s SF in the sense that the story’s set in the future. There’s no space or time travel, no aliens, no cyborgs. There are advances in technology, of course, but not to the extent you see in other works. The story is not apocalyptic, dystopian, or steampunk. It is simply a story, set in the future, where a new technological development has cultural and political ramifications. It sounds kinda dry when I say it like that – but it’s not, I swear! But needless to say, I’m still a long way from having a logline for this story.

I ripped through the first draft in record time (for me). But after letting the story sit and having my husband (and beta reader in disguise) look it over, I realized what I had written was a far cry from what I had originally envisioned. Not unsalvageable, mind you, but definitely different.

Oh, and I should mention the demons… The demons that have completely taken over my manuscript.

For starters, I did not intend to write a story with overt political overtones. In the beginning, I saw the story as a “simple” caper set in the future. But as I started digging deeper into this future of my creation, the politics became harder and harder to escape.

Then there was the pesky dynamic that crept up between my two lead (POV) characters. A romantic subplot that is admittedly not well executed. When I was drafting, I let the story happen as organically as possible. I had a general understanding of the where I wanted the plot to go, but there was a lot of leeway – hence the over-the-top romantic arc I have to deal with now. Think cheesy. Think cringe-worthy. After reading the draft, my husband had to ask if I was writing a romance set in the future or an actual SF novel. Ouch.

In my defense, I think all the mushy stuff was a carryover from my work on my recently completed historical romance novel, but that’s no longer a viable excuse. Nope. Now is the time to exorcize all the demons from my manuscript. It’s time to revise. This is hardcore.

First up, I must minimize the romantic overtones. I don’t mind the characters getting together, but I want their romance to be understated and complement the rest of the novel – not take it over entirely. Next, given the political thrust of the story, I need to add another POV character as a political foil to my two leads that provides another perspective. This will help with worldbuilding and hopefully pull some of the attention away from the romantic subplot. Since I also have a third-act, one-dimensional villain, I’ve chosen him as my third POV character to make him more sympathetic and justify his actions.

All these changes are going to take a lot of work. Adding roughly another third of content and reworking the material I already have. But it will be worth it. With the demons gone, the story can only get stronger.

Demons, begone! How do you banish your demons from a WIP?

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