- a unit of grammatical organization next below the sentence in rank and in traditional grammar said to consist of a subject and predicate.
(John F. Kennedy)
As summer ends and fall approaches, those of us who are regular NaNoWriMo writers begin to plan for our month of committed writing. We are jotting down ideas as they come to us, and making notes to help springboard ourselves into November with all our guns a blazing.
People who have never heard of NaNoWriMo are always surprised that it is not only people who want to be published authors who use this month to create 50,000 word manuscripts. Family historians, dedicated diarists, people working on their PhD–anyone who wants or needs a month dedicated to getting a particular thing written will do so in November. More people do this during November than you would think–about half of our WriMos in my regional area are journaling or writing their theses. The support of the group really helps the graduate students stay focused, and it also bolsters those who are diarists and encourages them to write more about their thoughts and philosophies.
I’ve been asked many times what I see as the differences between journaling and noveling. (Sorry, word-nazis–I know, I know! I just invented that word but hey, why not loosen up a bit and have a little fun with language? Willie Shakespeare did it all time!)
Anyway, journaling is keeping a diary. You do this on a daily basis, or at least frequently. According to Tiny Buddha “Journaling can help with personal growth and development. By regularly recording your thoughts you will gain insight into your behaviors and moods.” You start where you are in life at that moment, and for ten or fifteen minutes a day, you write stream of consciousness. This is an awesome way to jump-start your brain.
Noveling is telling lies, keeping them straight, and making the world believe it until the last page. Again, William Shakespeare was awesome at this, and he put his work into the form of plays and sonnets, which were the most accessible media of the time for the common people.
How many words did William Shakespeare invent? According to Shakespeare Online Dot Com: “The English language owes a great debt to Shakespeare. He invented over 1700 of our common words by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising words wholly original. … For a more in-depth look at Shakespeare’s coined words, please click here.”
Whether you are journaling or noveling, the important thing is to do it every day. Write for as long as you can when you can, and that will build your ‘writing’ muscles. If I dedicated 3 hours a day to just writing stream of conscious, I will chunk out 2500 to 3000 words–about half of which are mis-keyed and misspelled, but hey, no one is perfect. Some words I invent–and some words invent me, but either way, I love words.
We have all been affected by the suicide of beloved comedian Robin Williams. His was a death that touched us as deeply as his life had. We felt we knew him on a personal level, and though we knew he battled demons, we somehow believed he had survived them, and that all was well at last for him.
But if there is one positive thing to come out of this sad end to a beautiful man’s life, it is that people are at last having a dialogue about clinical depression.
This is something I understand on a personal level. My mother suffered from clinical depression, to the point that many times she was incapacitated during my childhood, and my maternal grandmother stepped in to care for our home and for us all. It was the 1960’s and miracle drugs were prescribed right and left–and Mama was on all of them at on time or another with varying degrees of success.
I have fought depression all my life too, and know firsthand that there is no ‘cure,’ no ‘magic bullet,’ no one-size-fits-all pill to solve the problem. Telling yourself to just pull up your socks and get on with your life doesn’t help much either. Because my mother took so many medications, and they often worsened her condition, I have avoided them except at my worst, lowest point.
There is no way to express what clinical depression feels like to a person who has never experienced it. You are not sad–that word is an approximation, but not an accurate description. There is sadness involved, but for me it was more a deep lethargy, a lack of interest in life. I wanted to participate in the world around me, but I couldn’t pull myself together enough to get dressed and go out the door. It was like being stranded at the bottom of a well of confused misery and I loathed myself for that, but there were times in my twenties when I was so paralyzed by this disease, I couldn’t scrape together the energy to clean my house. I had no idea what was wrong with me, or why I was such a failure.
Fortunately I had children. I refused to just stay in bed as my mother did at times. I forced myself to stay involved with them, only booked music gigs for early evening in places like Wolf Haven or coffee shops where I could take my kids, and I wrote short stories, fairy-tales for them. Having to provide a decent life for my children kept me going to work and functioning on a superficial level. For them, I could get up, go to work, and pay the bills, but it was a constant struggle and in the late nineties my third marriage fell apart and once again depression hit me hard.
In 1998 I began having severe panic attacks to the point I was unable to drive across town. I opted to go into therapy, in the hope I could learn ways to cope. Thanks to an extremely caring psychologist who was not afraid to try new ideas, I found the tools and skills I was looking for. He showed me simple ways to physically alter my brain’s chemistry without resorting to medications, and as along as I practice these techniques I do well. For me, this was an answer.
It was not as easy as it sounds, but now I have some way to deal with this. I have sort of gotten a handle on it, and writing is part of my therapy. Interestingly enough, I recently had the indignity of being denied affordable life insurance because of this diagnosis being in my medical record.
The Journal of Psychiatric Research recently published a study, “Mental Illness, Suicide, And Creativity: 40-Year Prospective Total Population Study,” examined 1.2 million Swedish patients from the country’s national registry and compared this sample against the entire Swedish population. The most interesting and surprising results related to authors. Writers were a whopping 121% more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder than the general population. Moreover, Simon Kyaga, the study’s lead researcher, said that authors had a “statistically significant increase” in anxiety disorders: 38% to be exact. Rates of alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide also increased among writers.
In an interview on the website, Lit Reactor, Portland Oregon based author and psychotherapist, Philip Kenney, said: “It isn’t easy to see oneself, the strengths and weaknesses, the familiar imperfections, without a judgment that often spells, B-A-D. Inferior. I try to remember the beautiful patterns made by the cracks in the sidewalk. Practicing kindness is the best remedy.”
I admit I am obsessive about my craft, and that has been both a curse and a boon. It is a curse, because if I choose, I can use it as a reason to never go anywhere. But it is a boon because through my involvement with NaNoWriMo, Olympia Area Writers Co-op, PNWA, and ABNA I am FORCED to leave the Room of Shame (my office) and through these organizations I have met some of the most wonderful, amazing people you can imagine.
And strangely enough–many of them frequently suffer from various forms of ill health, depression, and anxiety disorders. By staying involved, we raise each other up, and try to support each other when the road is hard.
I am grateful for my blessings, never more so than when someone like Robin Williams, who gave us so much of himself, falls victim to the demons of evil, pernicious, clinical depression.
I love writing and I love my characters, but they are so stubborn about some things. Of course, many of them have ‘Y’ chromosomes, but still…. It’s frustrating because they don’t want to to talk about how they’re feeling.
Oh, for the love of Tolstoy–don’t they get it? I’m a woman. I need you people to talk to me. Tell me what’s going on in your imaginary head.
It’s difficult to show the characters’ emotions and thought processes when it’s so much easier to just say he felt, or she was some emotion. These thoughts and feelings are central to making our characters feel real. But describing them from a distance, as an author must do, may disconnect the reader from that character.
Sometimes, descriptions don’t allow the reader to experience the moment with the character. Instead, the author is telling them how the character feels.What we must ensure is that our readers remain immersed in the narrative, that no ‘speed-bumps’ come along to knock them out of it.
One of the best at this is Carlie M.A. Cullen, whose urban fantasy series Heart Search featuring a coven of vampires is gaining in popularity. I think her books are so compelling because of her ability to draw a reader into the character without going over the top. So, how does she do it?
The opening line of chapter one of Heart Search Book 1, Lost reads like this: The sun, a ferocious golden orb, burnt into his skin as Joshua wandered aimlessly through the country park.
She could have just written The sun was hot and Joshua was killing time in a park.
But she didn’t, and the story is better for it–AND she showed you both the scene and Joshua’s mood in that one sentence.
Let’s pretend we’re writing a fantasy novel. We can go over the top, like a painting by Herbert Gustave Schmalz, or we can find a happy medium between too much and too little. There is no need to sink into overly sentimental and exaggerated pathos in order to inject feeling into our work.
Here we have a character who is on the run from a creature of some sort. 1. He was afraid. He was terrified to look back.
Example one tells the reader how the character feels. We might write this in our first draft when we are just trying to get the story out of our heads. An unskilled writer would consider it just fine the way it is, as it expresses his thoughts perfectly.
However, it tells the reader how to feel, and readers really don’t like being told what to do.
2. He wiped the sweat from his brow with a trembling hand, fear from his narrow escape coursing through his veins. Heart pounding, he leaned against the wall, listening for any sounds that shouldn’t be there before chancing a glance around the corner.
Personally, I would read book number two over book number one, because it’s more interesting and makes me want to know more about this character and his problems. We need to use physical symptoms a character might experience combined with their actions, but we need to describe them in such a way that it is a natural part of the scene.
John slid down the wall, sitting in the mud, his breaths coming in hard, ragged gasps. Something trickled down his cheek, and wiping it, his hand came away with blood.
Lord Deccan’s fist hit the table. “Wine now, you miserable worm–or I’ll cut off your other ear!”
The one-eared innkeeper scuttled to the cellar. He quickly searched the shelves filled with dusty jars of cheap wine, settling at last on a vintage he thought might suffice.
Baldric’s guests normally drank from wooden tankards, but he knew that wouldn’t suit. There was a goblet, one he’d come by in a peculiar way, but it was a fine cup and would do well enough to stave off a tantrum of the lordly variety.
His shoulders hunched in anticipation of trouble, he approached the angry lord’s table. Setting the only goblet before the nobleman, he left the bottle and stepped away, bowing with feigned obeisance. Baldric had survived the war with all but his left ear intact, and intended to remain that way.
What we are doing here is exactly like interpreting what our loved one is telling us, when he/she refuses to use their words. Seeing them sitting slouched in the chair, clicker in hand and numbly flipping through channels is a good indication of their mood. So we must picture the scene and describe it .
We must show the emotions as they are reflected by the physical cues our characters give us, but don’t tell them–a difficult trick to master but one we must all do if we want our work to engage the reader.
Most of my work takes place in a world I invented, right down to the religion. Because my world is very different, whenever I sit down to write, I have the most incredible urge to spew background information. I want my reader to understand the world I’ve created, so I want to give them information. Lot’s and lots of information. OMG, do I have information for you.
But is the information for you as the reader, or for me as the author? There you have it–writing it down cements the world in my head. Now my info-dumps are cut and kept in a file that contains all my background information. I need that info to write the story, but the reader only needs enough bare bones to fire his imagination.
So how shall I do this? A prologue? Well, I’m leaning away from prologues nowadays, although it can be done–David Eddings did it really well in The Belgariad, and Anne McCaffrey also did in her Pern novels. In some cases a prologue sets the stage. But in online writing groups I frequently see that a large number of folks don’t bother to read prologues, preferring to get directly to the story. If folks aren’t going to bother reading it, why should I waste my time writing it?
The key to describing the fantasy setting and the social structure of that world is to let the story do it naturally. Deploy the info in small increments as the characters go through their daily life.
Let’s pretend we’re writing a detective novel:
Joe Stone stood, illuminated by the harsh light of the fridge, staring at the six-pack of beer that represented the sum total of his groceries. Grabbing one, he twisted the cap off, and took a long, desperately needed pull.
A sour smell rose from his sink as he peered through the broken blinds, more concerned with the dead body in his rundown tool shed than the shabby state of his kitchen. He wondered who the stiff was, and how the dead man pertained to the divorce case he was investigating.
Most importantly, he wondered how he could avoid taking the rap for it.
That he was being deliberately set up was a given, but by who? Pulling his phone from his pocket, Joe scrolled through his contacts. He had one last friendly ear at the police department, his old partner, Mike Copper. The question was, would Mike believe him or would he leap to the conclusion that Joe had snapped again?
So, now you have a picture of Joe Stone. He’s probably single, a private investigator, his home is in disrepair, his empty fridge tells us doesn’t eat at home very often, and he may drink more than is good for him.
Joe is an ex cop, possibly fired for use of excessive force, as he fears he has only one sympathetic ear there. He’s involved in a nasty private investigation, the corpse in the shed tells us that.
There’s no need for an info dump to aid the reader in forming a picture of Joe. All that information was deployed by his actions, and while reading the events of the next 72 hours, more snippets will come out, and this complicated man and his world will become more clear to the reader.
Settings make no difference. Writing fantasy novels is the same thing as writing novels set in the real world. Assume your world is real and slip the info in the natural places.
Belnek knelt by the low fire in front of his hut, pulling the turnips out of the coals, brushing the burnt flakes away. His mouth watered, and he wished there had been meat to roast, but once again, when he checked his snares, they had been empty.
Realizing what he had just thought, he gasped, fearing the god would interpret his thoughts as ingratitude and would make the harvest scant too. He raised his eyes to the east where the shining towers of the gods were said to be. Closing his eyes he, said a prayer to Osin, thanking him for the turnips, asking his blessing on the meal.
Now you see a man who is not rich, but who has a hut and a fire, and has turnips to roast. Prayers come as naturally to him as breathing–he is a devout man, sure his god is all-knowing, and concerned that he is seen as a devoted, grateful man. His snares are apparently empty quite often, so game has become scarce, and it concerns him.
We have the basics of his world, low-tech, agrarian. In that small scene, intimate details of Belnek’s life is shown and in that way the reader has enough info to begin to picture the world outside Belnek’s hut. There is no need to dump a huge amount of information, because it will come out as his story unfolds.
For me the real trick is to rein it in, because I love every last little detail about my imaginary worlds. But that doesn’t mean my readers will love them. Most readers only need the skeleton of the world so that they can visualize it themselves. The hard part is finding that magic moment where you have given them exactly the right amount of details to involve the reader, but not so much they become bored.
Listen to your beta readers, and make adjustments accordingly. If they feel they can be honest with you, they will point out where you need to tighten the narrative, or expand a bit more on the details.