Recently I’ve been working on a fantasy story. I’ve got it outlined pretty well, and I’ve planned ahead so the writing itself is going well, but the problem I’ve been running into most often has been naming the places and characters.
I’ve always paused when I’m thinking of a name, since I feel that the name is an important descriptor.
If it is a person, I want the name to be representative of the character in some way. That’s easy enough in languages I’m familiar with, but when the character is from another culture, that means surfing the internet, looking up the meanings of names and finding one that matches the character. Even my gaming characters have carefully considered names.
The same holds true for locations. The name has to feel right or it distracts me from the story. I try to take into account geography, the culture and history of the people, and what I want or need the location to be in the story. Again, I can turn to online databases for inspiration, but it is not as easy as just adding syllables together.
All these choices can be more difficult with science fiction or fantasy stories. Aliens and non-humans aren’t generally going to be called ‘Bob’ or ‘Helen’, from the planet ‘the Green One’, at least not without some back story, and having the names seem at least remotely related can be a chore.
Multicultural historical or modern stories have this problem, though a concentrated internet search can bring up enough information to get past them.
I try to figure out a lot of this information before hand, to avoid pausing as I write. But I cannot anticipate every need, so I often use placeholders, typing in something in brackets (i.e. [Green Valley]) so that I can come back later and fix it. I found this works better than typing in something sloppy and getting attached to a sloppy name.
Names are important, and should take a least a moment to consider before deciding on one. If you have any exercises on naming characters and places I’d be happy to learn about them.
During November, my friends and I held a number of writing nights. Some of the participants are creative writers, some were participating in NANOWRIMO, and some had personal or professional projects that they wanted to focus on. All of us had something to write. And I found that they totally work!
The first hour looks less than productive. We often make it a pot luck night, spending that first hour eating, talking, blowing off some of the steam that everyone accumulates during their work day. Not a lot of writing. But enjoyable nonetheless.
After the food and wine, we set out to writing. There is some talking during the writing, but that doesn’t seem to distract anyone too much. In the four writing group nights I participated in (further events cancelled due to snow), I managed at least a thousand words each night. Others finished their projects or reported hundreds of words written in the time we allowed. I wonder if the drive to write is spurned by the fear that at any moment, another member of the group could ask how many words you’ve written.
So you have finished your rough draft. You get some congratulations from family and friends, treat yourself to a nice meal, and stand at the top of the world. But you know you aren’t done. If you are anything like me, reading your rough draft will run to both extremes of the spectrum, from ‘Pulitzer Prize, here I come!’ to ‘I need to delete this sentence, format the hard drive and burn the computer so no one knows I did this.’ There’s still work to be done.
Revisions can be overwhelming to contemplate. It was hard enough finding works and breaking through writers block the first time, and now you have to question everything you’ve written? But it is something every writer has to learn to do.
The first time I had a rough draft to revise, I printed it out and decided to read right on through. I did not want to stop and start and work through every problem until I know how many problems I had. I puzzled out a system to identify what revisions I need to make, once which works surprisingly well. Read on and tell me what you think.
What you need:
A printed copy of your draft.
Pens: Red and Black is a must; other colors handy
Highlighters: At least three colors.
Ideally you want to have the post-it notes and highlighters be of similar colors, but it’s not necessary. Keep these things nearby when you are rereading your work.
How it Works:
It’s pretty simple. When you read through your draft, you will use the color coded pens, highlighters and post-its to color code the errors, corrections and ideas you come across.
So what are you looking for?
General Proof Reading
Don’t hate the red pen. Embrace it. Every spelling error and incorrect word, every grammar mistake and punctuation problem gets marked. Even with today’s computer spell checkers you’d be amazed what can slip by. And the internet is full of help.
Sometimes no amount of red ink can save a paragraph, and the only thing to do is delete and try again. Often I’m violating the KISS Rule, or it just doesn’t sound right. Or (in one instance), I discovered a topographical map of an area that showed my description was incorrect.
Highlight the sentences, paragraphs or pages in a color (I usually use pink) and stick a post-it note out the side so you know where your rewrites are. Don’t worry about rewriting them now.
Not everyone speaks in the same voice. Accents, education, and second languages can impact how a character sounds. Ask yourself if a character’s lines actually sound like that character. If you think they don’t, highlight them.
Any story of length should worry about consistency, and a book is a long story indeed. You will have ideas later on you need to go back and prepare for, or notice details about characters that have changed from one chapter to another. Even if you are one of those writers who writes thousands of words of background information before you write your book, you’re going to run into such issues.
Highlight the passages and mark them with post-its. Once you’ve finished your read-through, make a list of the continuity issues. Spend some time planning what corrections and additions you will need to do. I usually use green to mark these, since I can use a green pen to make the changes necessary.
I’m sure that as I continue writing my revision process I will change it to meet the demands of my writing. I’m already prepared to add a ‘Check Your Science’ color when I first write a Science Fiction story. But it is a solid system. I’m interested to know what systems you use, and how you might personalize this system.
When I write, I create a rich backstory for the world I’m writing in. And while I can remember many details of that world, I can’t remember them all. Trying to keep track of all those details has been a constant pain for me, especially as I replace computers, send documents from work to home, or even just forget where I put the file with all the information.
One day I ventured onto the Internet to look for a database program. I was hoping to find something that would allow me to create a Wikipedia type database, with links between files so I could move from one page to another. I did eventually find one, but first I found yWriter.
yWriter showed up as a writing program designed for writers. In the words of the website:
yWriter is a word processor which breaks your novel into chapters and scenes, helping you keep track of your work while leaving your mind free to create. It will not write your novel for you, suggest plot ideas or perform creative tasks of any kind. yWriter was designed by an author, not a salesman!
I downloaded it and gave it a try…and I am very glad I did.
yWriter most appeals to me because of the organization it applies to the writing project. Before, I would write with either a single file for the whole project or each one file per chapter. I wasn’t really happy with either one. yWriter allows me to add chapters to a project, and add scenes to chapters. The program keeps an automatic word count, and even tracks how many words I add in a given day.
For any scene and chapter I can add notes separate of the words in the actual document. A writer can also keep track of a number of Details for the scene, including Type, Tags, Importance, and various Ratings (I don’t use these, personally, but they’re there to be used).
What I really enjoy is the ability to turn scenes off, so that the program keeps them but they don’t apply to the book as a whole. For example, I recently read a scene that started strong but petered out into a boring exchange. I copied the scene and turned the first one off, so I can access it, but it doesn’t appear in my word count. I deleted most of the copied scene and I can continue writing without losing the first attempt.
yWriter has three different databases: Characters, Locations and Items.
Adding an item is as easy as highlighting a word and right clicking. Once it is added, I can add notes and pictures to the database without changing anything of the scenes. I can get as detailed or as simple as I want.
This is a nice program to keep track of the little things when I add a new character, but it does have a problem. The database will find every instance of the word and track it, even if it isn’t an instance that you want it to track. For example, if I have a character named Mars, the program will highlight the first half of the word Marshall.
Spell Checking and Printing
No program is perfect, and yWriter’s flaws come towards the end of the process.
yWriter has a Spell Checker option, but it is not very good. This would normally be a deal breaker, but the programmer managed to add a way to side step this. You can export chapters to Microsoft Word and spell check your work there, then import back into yWriter (just be careful not to delete the coding that allows yWriter to import to the correct chapters and scenes).
The printing function is okay, but I’ve found it much more useful to import to Microsoft Word and fix the formatting before printing or changing to a PDF. Part of this may stem from so much of my first project in yWriter being imported from Google Docs, Microsoft Word and Open Office. I’m hoping this will improve over subsequent projects.
I have found yWriter to be a very useful program, both as a writing system and as a simple database for notes. And that is fully admitting I don’t use everything this program has to offer. I hope some of you go and try it out.
My degree is in history. I’ve always enjoyed it. From looking at the pictures in my dad’s Civil War book as a kid to my final college paper detailing the modernization of the Japanese Military following the Meiji Restoration, I am fascinated by the story of humanity and its progress and trials.
I believe it is because of my Historical background that I enjoy books (and games) that have expanded back stories and histories, and I do the same with my own projects. Every character has a background that I may never bring up. Every location has a history. It just comes naturally to me to pause and think for ten seconds, if only to create in my mind a hidden aspect of the story.
An unintended result of this is what I call the Historian’s Eye, a Block Breaking technique that I started using when I began working on novel-length projects. It allows me to take a step back from my creative side and bring up my inner historian.
The Block I commonly use this process with has to do with conflict between characters. The protagonist is opposing someone (or several someones), but the opponents are too simple. I need to create a realistic situation with realistic opponents for the character to face.
The goal is to create enough details that an interesting conflict can be written and resolved.
How it Works:
Imagine you a historian who is writing about the situation you are currently stuck on. Around you are interviews with participants, official records, maps, everything a historian needs to disappear into a library for days on end. You want to impress your reader with as much information as you can.
Step 1 – The Conflict
This step involves the conflict itself. Look at the conflict and make a list:
What is the conflict?: Perhaps it is a military battle or a struggle for an academic award. Try to define it as something other than a part of the plot for one character.
Who is participating in the conflict?: This is more specific than saying ‘soldiers’ or ‘students’. This is a list of the people involved. This may not get specific enough to list every individual, but you can at least get numbers and consider the key players involved. This list does not include just the direct participants, but can includes superior or junior members of a team or third party participants (the contest judge, civilians on a battlefield, etc).
How does the conflict end?: Every conflict has an end. It could be a subtle realization that the enemy is no longer attacking or that moment when the judges declare one student the winner. But that ending is the goal for the participants.
Step 2 – The Big Picture
As a historian, my first step in any project was to look at the big picture. No one operates in a vacuum and no event lacks consequences. Everything fits together somehow. So step back and consider the tapestry. This could be very simple or it could require numerous notes and graphs, but the point is to consider the context of the block within the story and the world at large, and who has an interest in the outcome.
Military battles have politicians and generals directing resources to or away from the battlefield. The character may have too much help, or too little.
Suitors of a princess will have friends and family members spreading rumors to help and hurt.
Scientific programs competing for funding may attract the attention of corporate or political patrons, for good ro bad.
Step 3 – The Characters
With the Big Picture and Conflict mapped out, look at the Characters involved. List out a series of question and answers for each character. Some questions I might ask are:
Why is the character here?
What is the character’s goals in this conflict? Are they different from the other characters’?
How has the character been prepared for this conflict?
Who will help the character? Will the character ask for that help?
Is the character willing to cheat?
The nature of the questions will change depending on the conflict being considered. A military conflict will involve significantly different questions than a science fair. But as a historian, the goals and decisions of an individual are an important part of the process. As a writer, the friction between the characters is an important part of the story.
Part of this step is to consider the conflict from the eyes of each character. A true historian looks as the subject from all sides, and this case is no exception. Knowing what the other people are trying to accomplish will help define the course of the conflict for the character, and what their reactions will be when the character acts in her own best interests. Someone is going to lose, but no one wants to.
Leaving the Historian
By now you should have a fair amount of material to fleshes out the conflict. The character’s opponent is no longer a faceless enemy, but is now a character with his own motivations, resources and goals; the victory is a consequence of choices and actions, not of plot. Both a historian and a fiction writer would begin to describe the conflict, bringing the story to life.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts and experiences with the Historian’s Eye.
As a kid I wrote and drew pictures books. By middle school I was attempting to write novels. My friends and I would play imaginative games in yards, turning a front porch into a starship bridge. In high school it was Role Playing Games, crafting a story through acting and die rolling. In College I did not pursue writing as a career, instead trying my hand at a number of possible fields, none of which panned out. But I was still writing and creating in my off time.
I write because I enjoy it. I enjoy creating worlds of wonder, writing about people and their adventures. I love puzzling out the story behind everyone. I even enjoy the writer’s block and the chapters I finish and delete, because all of that leads to the moment when you type ‘The End’, sit back, and marvel at what you’ve done.
I write because I find it soothing. Coming home from a long day of work, sitting at the computer, and immersing myself in the details of a world of my own creation drains all of those cares away.
I write because I read. I love the thrill of reading someone’s work and getting so intense that my heart races with every word. I’ve cried and laughed with the characters, felt the exultation of victory and the pain of defeat, and hoped that someday I could write so well.
I have always been a writer.
Now I mean to be an author.
This blog and website are my proclamation to the world. I am embarking on a quest to self-publication and all that entails. I will blog and write and share the process as I go on. Perhaps this is the start of a great career. Perhaps this is just another attempt to start a career. Perhaps it is somewhere in between.