Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo, wrote a book called No Plot? No Problem!, in which he outlined his steps to writing a novel in 30 days. One of the very early steps is to make a couple of lists, which will serve as the writer’s “Magna Carta” during the frantic rush to write 50,000 words in one month. List One is a personalized list of What Makes a Good Novel; List Two, things that bore or depress you in novels. The idea is to hang these lists up and use them as your personal Dos and Don’ts.
Just for fun, here’s my own take on the Magna Carta I:
- Speculative fiction! (I love it best.)
- Complex main characters.
- Main characters that change.
- Not too many points of view.
- If there’s magic, it should require some cost or consequence.
- If there are aliens, they should be developed as carefully as the human characters.
- Excellent, in-depth worldbuilding that’s obvious in the story and dialogue, where there is a real reason for things in the world to be as they are — but not too much time “describing” it!
- Attention paid to diversity, BUT —
- Diversity that doesn’t hit me with a hammer.
- A touch of humor.
- An antagonist who’s real (more than a paper cut-out villain).
- Good, realistic interpersonal relationships shown in dialogue and action, not just sex.
- Good imagery.
- Some sort of religion/belief system/code that may vary by social/occupational class or culture — because that’s part of life.
- Well-described but short action/battle scenes.
That’s a long list. (It would’ve been even longer, but I forced myself to stop thinking of things.) Some novels I like quite a lot wouldn’t meet all these requirements. But still, these are the things that keep me reading, and things I can aim for in my next attempt at NaNoWriMo.
Note: I’ve done NaNoWriMo twice. (A third time I used the event to begin the process of finishing and polishing my previous NaNoWriMo novel.) Once I thought the event was useful, and one time I quit in frustration. My previous posts about NaNoWriMo are here and here.
Photo Credit: The header image is from a photograph by Anastasia Zhenina, from Unsplash.com.
These Bird of Paradise flowers are part of the California Summer Border at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. They are so striking I couldn’t resist adding another flower picture to the blog.
Here’s a link to the museum’s page about the California Summer Border.
I had a wonderful time at the Yellow Springs Book Fair, until we got rained out pretty late in the day. Most of the booksellers had tables of used books (children’s, cookbooks, science fiction, even a Girl Scout Brownie handbook from a LONG TIME AGO that brought back memories), but there were a few authors there as well.
The event was held on the grounds of the Mills Lawn Elementary School. I loved their beautiful sign:
Before the end of the day, I left signed copies of Color Mage and Sword of Jashan at a local bookstore. They’re available at Epic Books on Xenia Street in Yellow Springs. Here’s a link to the store Facebook page for more information: https://www.facebook.com/epicbookshop/
In spite of its title, Captain Fantastic has nothing to do with superheroes. Its protagonist is Ben Cash, who is raising his six children in the wilderness, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. He’s not a superhero, just an iconoclast.
With the noble goal of raising “philosopher-kings”, Ben is authoritarian yet honest to a fault, teaching athleticism, strength of character, and skepticism of capitalism, religion and popular culture. His kids scale cliffs and rejoice in the gifts of new hunting knives while reading the classic books of literature and political thought.
Then the kids’ mother dies. Ben Cash and his children venture into the alien melee of modern American life, with its shopping centers, ignorance, and separation from nature, to provide his dead wife the funeral she really wanted – a rescue of sorts from the clutches of the world she had fled.
It’s easy to be distracted by the collision of the isolated Cash children with the dominant popular culture. The kids don’t understand social norms, the violence of popular media, the games between young people who are attracted to each other. It’s funny and painful at the same time.
Then there’s the deeper theme, about the consequences of the choices parents make for their children. We all make them, based on our own values that usually conform more or less to the dictates of our cultures, our religions, our education. Ben Cash’s values are in sharp conflict with the dominant culture. As his sons mature they see the real world and prepare for their own places in it, and they inevitably challenge their father’s choices.
I don’t know why this didn’t occur for the daughters in the movie. I was looking for it, and didn’t see it.
And what if, instead of “philosopher-kings”, Cash was raising his children alone in the wilderness to believe in white supremacy, or conspiracy theories, or something else I don’t believe in? How would that affect my opinion of the movie? Great food for thought!
All along the way there are laughs, complex characters, beautiful photography and gorgeous terrain. The role of Ben seemed perfect for Viggo Mortensen, and the young actors were outstanding. Nobody was the bad guy here; even the kids’ grandfather (Frank Langella), while trying to wrest the kids away from Cash, had only their best interests in mind.
This is a good film, in spite of an ending that seemed out-of-step with the main portion of the story. It works on many levels. I enjoyed it and I’m still thinking about it.
The movie website is at http://www.bleeckerstreetmedia.com/captainfantastic.
I’m looking forward to this year’s Confluence convention in Pittsburgh, where I’ll be a program participant. Confluence is a speculative fiction literary conference with a pretty extensive list of author participants.
Confluence will be held from July 29-31 at the Sheraton Pittsburgh Airport Hotel. Here’s a link to the convention website. My current schedule is below. I’ll be around on the Saturday as well, hopefully attending some of the writing/reading related panels!
I recently spoke to a new writer who didn’t see the point of a critique group.
There might be people who can write outstanding fiction without feedback. Maybe experienced authors with lots of novels under their belts. Maybe someone who’s studied writing for years. Maybe an outlier — a newbie who has a gift.
But most of us live too closely with our work-in-progress to know what’s really on that page when it’s “done”. We’ve revised. Maybe the plot has changed since our original outline. Maybe we’ve changed a character’s name or backstory, or added new characters. What’s in our heads NOW isn’t necessarily what’s on that page when someone new reads it. Only a critique group or beta reader can tell you how your work comes across to a new reader.
“But why should I change my novel based on someone else’s thoughts?”
This is a great question. The answer is: You don’t have to change a single word of your novel. It’s your world, your characters, your story you’ve lived and breathed maybe for years.
But you’re going to WANT to change it.
A good critique group approaches feedback NOT with the intent of making your writing just like everyone else’s. (If this is how your group functions, then run.) Instead, their feedback should help you make your story the best it can be.
Are you doing things that detract from the clarity of your sentences? Is the plot twist you are so proud of in Chapter 20 really clear to the reader? Does your main character come off as loyal and proud or just conceited? These are the kinds of things it really helps to know before you send your story off to an agent or publisher.
I don’t change my story with every bit of criticism I receive. But well-considered comments received from someone outside my own head can help clarify my thoughts about my story, like silt settling out of water. The value of this is huge.
That said, there can be a downside to over-reliance on critique groups. I’ll link to this post by Kristen Lamb, who explains it all much better than I can.
Good luck on your writing!
Wonderful street art I noticed on my last trip to Youngstown:
Just a couple of images, from today’s visit to the Franklin Park Conservatory. Because it’s Spring.
Eye in the Sky is a powerful look at how people make decisions – or don’t make decisions — when faced with a terrible dilemma.
In Eye in the Sky, there’s at least one thing that doesn’t often happen in real life: there’s almost perfect information. Through the use of modern surveillance technology and assistance from an ally on the ground, British military intelligence, working in England, knows that terrorists are preparing suicide vests. There’s no doubt about the analysis: they can see the terrorists arming inside a surveilled safehouse in Kenya. Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), working with American drone pilots operating from Nevada, commands a missile strike on the target.
That’s when things go haywire. A young Kenyan girl brings bread to sell at a table outside the safehouse. If the strike proceeds, she will probably die. If the strike is called off, the terrorists will kill as many as 80 people.
The movie proceeds through a gripping, sometimes agonizing series of delays as Powell requests clearance from military, legal and political superiors. The American pilot struggles with his own decision. Meanwhile, a bug drone in the safehouse transmits video of the terrorists loading and donning the suicide vests.
The movie was intense and surprisingly even-handed. Helen Mirren was brilliant as the focused Colonel Powell, determined to complete the mission. Alan Rickman’s last performance was outstanding.
Eye in the Sky explored the ethical decisions that have always had to be made in warfare – even more immediate in this era of terrorism and targeted death from the sky. It even made the viewer a participant in the drama; as I watched, I weighed the decision just as the characters did.
Even through the tension of delays, as the window of opportunity began to close, it was clear that each character’s viewpoint had validity. Fascinating stuff, especially for a writer.
Here’s more information about Eye in the Sky on IMDb.
“Write what you know!”
This advice is both empowering and limiting. But I think a lot of people experience it as limiting.
When many of us think about what we know, it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. Our daily lives may not strike us as story material, and unless we have personally experienced something amazing, strange, or unfortunately traumatic, our own lives may not seem to inspire.
When it comes to what genre to write, I prefer to think of it as “Write what you love.”
I love science fiction and fantasy, for many reasons I’ll save for another post. When I thought about writing, I always knew I would write speculative fiction. Not because I personally have battled an enemy mage, or leaped to another star in a hyperdrive ship. But because that’s what I love.
And some things I do know, as every writer does. We know what it’s like to feel things. We know how our hands shake when we’re frightened, how tender our touch is when we love someone, how powerful is desire, or fear, or the need to escape. We know the taste of hot chocolate, the sounds of rush hour, the burn of a scraped knee.
That’s what we need to know – how to be human. That’s what goes into making good characters – understanding of ourselves and of what it might be like to be others, maybe different, but still human.
And that’s what’s empowering. Because we all know this! We just have to learn how to write it. Learning the craft is not always an easy process. It takes time. But it’s possible.
Then we get down to the nitty gritty. There are actually a lot of things we need to know to write. But, except for empathy and curiosity, we can learn those things. Better not try to write a story set on a seagoing vessel if you don’t know what a deck is! Better not write a story about an expedition to a massive planet if you forget the heavy hand of increased gravity.
But you can learn those things. Research, read a lot, write several drafts. Go out and get on a ship. Talk to someone who knows about other planets. Practice, practice, practice. Then, run your story past a good beta reader or critique group for feedback on what you might have missed.
It’s a lot of work to make sure you get the details right. A story can turn on a fact that must be correct.
But you can learn all that. You already know the rest: empathy, curiosity, experience of life. Those are the things you need to give your characters life. And the most important thing is to always write what you love.