How to Make Your Story Richer Through Characters

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Original Artwork by pedlag

Your protagonist can’t be all things. She can’t be the antagonist for sure, she can’t be a foil for herself, hmmm… maybe I’m on to something here, a story with one character playing all roles. ::Laughs:: Nah..sounds either too hard or just plain boring.

So, what does that leave you with? Support characters! Everyone else the protagonist meets or interacts with. Some secondary characters are going to do some heavy duty, like Watson to Holmes. He is not only the foil and partner to Holmes, but the narrator as well. Some are not even going to be named. Ever looked at the credits to a movie? Guy with knife, 3rdgirl screaming, 5th dude that gets blown up. They are on screen as filler. What I’m shooting for here is somewhere in between. Continue reading “How to Make Your Story Richer Through Characters”

How to Build a Novel

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CC attributed to Boston Public Library

I haven’t really talked about what I’ve been working on for my thesis. Of course it’s science fiction but it’s very different from my first novel, which is securely trunked for now. I had a different story in mind when I went into residency, but I felt like the story I decided to use was much more timely and relevant. Also, I had a much better grip on how it would end, and I wanted something I knew I could finish to complete my degree.

I’ve been writing with a purpose to publish for about four years now and still have nothing to show for it, but I know I’m a much better writer now than I was when I started this process, and it is a process. The more I learn the more I understand that the learning will never end and it should be a constant improvement as I get more words under my belt. Continue reading “How to Build a Novel”

Yes…I’m still here

5a314-setonhillI’ve successfully completed the first semester of my Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction program. Lots of reading and lots of writing. I enjoy reading, and try to make time for it normally but for the Writings in Genre class we were forced to make time to read. This past semester was all about fantasy, which I enjoy, but it’s not really my bread and butter. The next semester is focused on science fiction, which is in my wheelhouse.  I’m looking forward to it and having experienced one semester I feel more confident knowing what to expect. Continue reading “Yes…I’m still here”

My First Guest Blogger – Victoria Thompson

I’m happy to give the podium to one of Seton Hill’s finest. The prolific Victoria Thompson is an instructor and Mentor in the Writing Popular Fiction Master’s program at Seton Hill University, in Greensburg, PA. Vicky also happens to be an Edgar nominated mystery writer, specializing in Historical Mysteries. Her Gaslight Mystery Series are centered around New York City at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Her first book, Murder on Astor Place was released in 2009, and the latest book for that series (number 15) is about to be released on May 7th. It’s called Murder in Chelsea. Vicky has published thirty-five novels so far and I don’t see her slowing down.

Today, she is going to give writers a few tips on what to do when we feel like we don’t know where to take the story…

WRITER TO THE RESCUE
So what does an author do when she’s written herself into a corner and can’t for the life of her figure out how to get out of it—all while thousands of fans are clamoring for her blood?  That’s the situation in which I found myself last year at this time.
If you are a fan of the Gaslight Mystery Series (Berkley Prime Crime), you know that Detective Sergeant Frank Malloy of the New York City Police and Midwife Sarah Brandt have been solving mysteries and gradually falling in love over the first 14 books in the series.  Unfortunately, I had started the series by creating insurmountable barriers to their ever getting together, never realizing that the series would become so successful or that readers would become so invested in Frank and Sarah’s lives.
Now let’s face it, how many mystery writers are lucky enough to have a series that runs for 14 books? I count my blessings every day. But in the spring of 2012, I realized that if I didn’t take care of Frank and Sarah’s relationship, readers probably would not keep reading. But how to do it without ruining the dynamics of the series? I was getting desperate, so I vented to my classmates.
Classmates?  Yes, I was just finishing up my master’s degree in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University.  One of my classmates, David Wilbanks, who writes Science Fiction and had at that time never read anything I’d ever written, took my challenge and sent me a list of about 20 things that could happen.  Unlike me and my fans, Dave was unencumbered by knowledge of the characters involved, so his solutions didn’t have to be feasible or even sensible.  His ideas were outside the box.  Some of them were even outside the Universe.  But one of them was the perfect solution to Frank and Sarah’s problems!
If you’re expecting me to tell you what that solution is right here, I’m sorry.  I write mysteries, so I’m not giving away anything that might  spoil the book for you.  I will say that in MURDER IN CHELSEA you will finally get to see Frank Malloy propose to Sarah Brandt. Of course they also solve a couple murders and locate the birth parents of Sarah’s foster daughter into the bargain.  This is a mystery series after all! And to thank Dave for his help, I named a major character after him in MURDER IN CHELSEA.

So this is how a fellow writer rescued me, saving me from the wrath of frustrated readers!  You can see how he did it by reading MURDER IN CHELSEA, a May 2013 hardcover release from Berkley Prime Crime.  It’s also available in all electronic formats. Please let me know if you like the solution by contacting me though my website, www.victoriathompson.com or liking me on Facebook at Victoria Thompson Author or following me on Twitter @gaslightvt.

Clear Ether!

Why this MFA?

Photograph by Sean McGowan

I know I haven’t posted much since I started my MFA program. I’ve been busy reading a lot of Fantasy books for one of my classes and doing a lot of writing and revising on my new story, which I’m very excited about. There are so many good things about the Seton Hill Writing Popular Fiction Masters in Fine Arts program. I want to share some of them with you.

First thing is in the title. It’s focused on genre fiction. Most programs at this level are centered on literary fiction, which to me seems pretentious and self-serving. There is still a strong faction within the academic community that looks down on genre fiction, but I think the writing in genre fiction is much more active and vibrant. The editing is tighter and the plot…there actually has to be a plot, moves faster and has purpose. We are taught that every scene should have a purpose and to focus on story and strong characters. There are lots of ways to write a book and the way the program is designed it’s flexible and demanding at the same time. They have a large (and growing) stable of mentors that work with students to offer advice on not just the writing but the larger career and business aspects.

The community of students, alumni and teachers is unparalleled. They may not be famous (yet), but they are smart and warm and talented. Some are well known in there genre and getting more attention all the time.  They stay connected and help each other daily. It might be the best part of the program. To be included in a large and growing community of people who write a lot and understand what you are dealing with is huge. It’s bigger than huge, since writing professionally is a fairly solitary endeavor, having a group to be part of makes all the difference in the world. And the expertise that’s available is rich and diverse, providing a deep pool of experience to draw from when you are writing about something you may not be all that familiar with.

The program orbits around the thesis and the thesis is designed from the beginning to be a marketable novel. The focus is on developing the writer’s skills while continually writing and revising the novel, getting feedback from other students and mentors along the way. It’s a built in team effort and it’s something special to have this much focus on a book during the development. Having writing partners is fantastic. Not only do they give your story fresh eyes, but they also encourage and push. I feel blessed to have such wonderful writing partners in the program. I hope that we remain partners as our writing careers go on long after we graduate the program.

They recently added the “F” part of the MFA which makes it accredited and allows a person to teach at the collegiate level. They have allowed prior graduates of the program to return and get their “F”, which is very cool. To me that’s just gravy. I don’t know if I will ever use it, but it’s nice to know that will be there.

The program only requires five days a semester to be on campus. It’s one of the lowest commitments of any program in the country and makes it much more palatable for those of us that have time consuming day jobs. It was the biggest factor in my choosing Seton Hill, but I couldn’t be happier with my choice. The residency is packed full, but the time we spend together is not only constructive but fun. We have time in the evenings to socialize and have special events, like book readings and dinners and even balls. The compressed time gives the residency an immediacy that serves to get a lot more involvement by everyone. I’m really looking forward to the next one.

If you have any interest in getting an MFA I give the Seton Hill program my highest endorsement. Good luck in your writing.

Clear Ether!

 

 

Ants in the Pants Syndrome

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Title: Street Tap

Are any of you what I call kinetic writers? I find that I have trouble sitting still for more than ten or fifteen minutes at a stretch, then as soon as I finish a particular passage I have to get up and walk around.  I’ll go down the hall and use the bathroom or look out the window for a minute or just get up and walk around the room for a minute before I sit back down and jump back into the writing. I haven’t figured out yet whether this is slowing me down or helping the neurons to fire. Obviously, there is time lost in all this moving about, but it’s like sitting and writing builds up a static charge and I have to get up and release it. I don’t have a choice.  The charge builds faster if I am doing a more intense part of the story, like somehow the prose are loaded with their own electrical potential and it courses back through the keyboard and into my body as the words flow out…conservation of energy or something.  It causes me to have to get up more frequently when the story is really hopping or getting more spirited.

The Ants-in-the-Pants syndrome.  It’s a good sign for me though, that I am doing impassioned work. Something is clicking in the story and I am on a roll, so I really don’t mind, and the interruption is brief, just a quick burst of energy blown off, like letting your gun barrel cool off after firing several magazine loads. I don’t know any other way, if I am in a place where I can’t get up frequently the charge builds up and creates a buffer of sorts that slows down the words coming out. I have to stop and do something else for a few minutes until the buffer clears.

I’m envious of you people than can sit and churn out a thousand words an hour. Maybe someday I’ll get where I can do that regularly. But I don’t type that well to start with and I have the attention span of a gnat. I’ve hit that baseline a few times, but it’s probably more common to do half that amount.

I’ve also gotten in the practice of writing down ideas and even leaving verbal notes to myself on my iPhone, because I know I’ll forget otherwise and my colander-like brain will drop that nugget of info right out and no matter how hard I try I won’t be able to dredge it up from the recesses of the trash compactor in my head.

In the meantime, I’ll just get a little extra exercise every quarter hour I reckon, and keep churning out words like a turtle after a caterpillar.

Clear Ether!

 

Got Conflict?

Photo Credit: Shiny Things, Creative Commons

The thing to keep in mind when we are writing is that the core of a story is conflict.  I know I have caught myself going easy on my protagonist.  Sometimes I just miss opportunities to heap a little extra conflict on because I start thinking  how I might react in a situation and then write my way out of it instead of letting it unfold in a way that will actually increase the drama, and the stakes for the character, making the story a little richer in the process.  Without conflict there is no story.  And even though we have sympathy for our creations, maybe even love, we still have to punish them for the sake of the story.  Conflict is the engine of our story and if we keep finding an easy path out of trouble it just makes for a lot of prose without a whole lot actually going on. The fiction becomes lifeless.

One of my instructors shared a story about getting a manuscript from an elderly neighbor who told him it was a memoir of their life.  It was thousands of pages long and in the form of journal entries that covered decades, but even though there were so many volumes there was no actual story.  She had led a very easy life with almost no conflict.  How do you tell someone that their life story doesn’t really have a story? It was tough I’m certain, but the bottom line is without struggle or strife there is nothing to hang the story’s hat on.

 

Every scene should have a purpose to move the story along and little conflicts drive scenes. Not every scene has to have something epic, but there needs to be some point of contention.  I read recently that you should never have two people in a scene that agree with each other.  The person that agrees is simply redundant.  It’s fine to have them in the background, but the core conflict for that scene should be between opposing stances.

 

Pay attention to the little opportunities that pop up to add some tension.

 

Now go write.

 

Clear Ether!

 

Reflections on Residency One

 

Last week I was at Seton Hill University for my first week of Residency for my Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction.  Thanks to my classmate Jenni Spoon for letting my use this picture she took last week. Check out her blog!

 

I spent the weeks prior getting ready by reading a book that was assigned and doing critiques of ten other writer’s work. I also prepared and sent in a ten-page piece to be critiqued.  I thought I was going to do my thesis on the work I had already done for Revelation Void, and that was what I edited for submission, but I’d been working on a new piece and during the course of the first few days I realized that piece was going to work out a lot better for me.

 

I have Clear Ether out to be critiqued, but I realize now that it is far from being ready for submission.  It’s going to require a major overhaul to be in any kind of shape that I would be satisfied with.  So Clear Ether is going on the shelf for a bit, along with Revelation Void.  I’m cool with it. I have some good ideas to explore for both of these books, but I am switching my focus to my new story.  I have just over 15k words so far, but they need to be polished.  I am going about this novel in a completely new way for me.  I’m actually outlining it first.  I actually know how it ends already.  I’m also trying something new with the type of story. It is firmly grounded in SF, but this one will be a mystery. The working title is Requiem for Memory, but I’m not completely sold on it and it may change at some point.

 

The residency itself was incredible.  I met almost a hundred writers and they were all warm and welcoming.  It was like finding a family that you didn’t know you had.  Everyone there wants to help you on your journey to become a better writer, from the faculty, the mentors, to the other students. I’ve never been in an environment like that and let me tell you, it was inspiring. We talked about writing, examined writing, critiqued writing, and actually did some writing.  When we weren’t in class the talk was still centered around writing and what we were working on or what obstacles we’d encountered in the process.  We also had some fun, although I would classify talking about writing as fun, we had several dinners and social gatherings, just to get to know each other better.  This was deeper than networking, at least it felt like it to me. We were getting to know our cousins and uncles and aunts and nieces and nephews.  It honestly felt like that.  The week culminated with a graduation for the seniorist class, the “Sixes”, as each class is referred to by it’s residency number.  The graduation was surprisingly emotional.  One of the graduating students gave a wonderful recap of their time together and the things that made each of them special. It was heartwarming.

 

The facility is on the grounds of an old Nunnery.  Everyone refers to the place as Hogwarts, because of its old wood and brick design and the fact that it just looks like the inside of Hogwarts.  People get lost that have been attending there for years and claim the hallway moved. (again) There is a graveyard onsight and in the summer residency there is a late night ghost walk every year. Many people claim the place is haunted.

 

I am so motivated to do all things involved with the writing process.  I actually know I am going to finish this book and it’s going to be good.  The SHUWPF (Seton Hill University Writing Popular Fiction) program has inspired me with that kind of confidence. I’m plotting out some nuances now and adding layers. I will fine tune the first 30 pages and send them out soon to my new writing partners, one is an English instructor at the collegiate level and the other a retired Marine Corps Colonel.  I am thrilled to be working with these wonderful people.  My mentor is David Bischoff, whose written more than 90 novels, most with a SF bent.  I feel very blessed.

 

The upperclassmen have been absolutely wonderful about taking us under their wing and showing us the ropes and making us feel welcome.  I love my fellow “Ones”, who will be “Twos” in June. We now have our own private place online to help each other.  The first steps on this journey were better than I expected and I am ridiculously excited about our time yet to come.

 

Clear Ether!