Is Fiction Writing Like Exercise?

Prior to the pandemic, did you ever run into this scenario? You pay for a monthly membership to the local fitness center. At first, you’re all excited about the prospect of getting into shape. The friendly trainers at the center give you an orientation to show you how to use the machines, and off you go. At first, you meet your goal of working out regularly. Then life starts getting busy and your visits to the gym grow less frequent. You really want to get back there more often, but there’s just too much going on. While you still visit the gym occasionally, you start feeling guilty about not going more. Eventually, you lose your motivation to go at all, but you keep the gym membership because you know you “really should get back there.” Maybe, there is a bright spot where you get all excited about it again for a couple of weeks before it starts to taper off. Finally you cancel the membership.

Over the years, I’ve seen the same pattern among some amateur writers. They start with a load of enthusiasm (and often real talent), but eventually lose their motivation and stop writing altogether.

I understand the problem. While I’ve never given up writing, I have certainly canceled gym memberships. Trying to stay motivated over the long haul is difficult. Writing can be one of the most rewarding activities in the world, but it is seldom easy, and parts of it can be tedious. It can feel frustrating and discouraging, particularly when you hear about how tight the market is these days and you watch good writers get one rejection letter after another.

When I see a friend lose the motivation to write, it saddens me greatly. I’ve tried various ways over the years to motivate my friends to get back to writing, but have met with mixed results. I don’t even fully understand what motivates me to write fiction. I’ve been writing novels since at least my college days and probably even longer. At times, I have been discouraged. I’ve even slowed down my pace for a while, but I’ve always come back to writing eventually.

The best advice I can give to young writers comes from my own experience: don’t give up. Remember that it will get better. The more you write, the easier it becomes to write more. When you finish that first book or short story, it is an accomplishment to celebrate, even if the only people who ever read your work are your friends and family. Your writing will improve as you go — I’ve seen it happen multiple times with my writer friends over the years.

With respect to physical exercise, on the other hand — ahem — well, let’s just say that If I tried to admonish people to get more exercise, I would be a hypocrite, so I’ll just keep my mouth shut about that. Hmmm…I wonder if exercising your fingers on a keyboard counts?

Talk to you next Friday.

-Susan 4/23/2021

When You’re Bored…Write!

Are you looking for more time to write your novel during your crazy, hectic schedule? Here’s a suggestion: Use those times when you are forced to sit and wait for an appointment. Even during the pandemic, we still occasionally find ourselves in a waiting room (or waiting in the car in a parking lot) for a doctor or dentist appointment. Don’t spend that “downtime” flipping endlessly through email or social media. Start writing fiction instead.

How does that work, you might ask? Obviously, if you have a laptop with you, writing is very easy. Suppose, however, that you typically do your fiction writing on your desktop computer at home? How can you write in a doctor’s office when your computer is miles away?

The answer is easy — make use of the technology you have with you. Most of our electronic communication devices provide some method to type memos. My phone has a free app called “notes” that allows me to use my phone keyboard to type reminders to myself. Yes, the screen is small and the virtual keyboard is awkward to use, but it is possible to compose fiction using it. Once you get home, you can email the note to yourself and cut-and-paste the text of what you’ve written into your existing manuscript. (There may be other phone apps specifically designed for writing, but I have not researched them. I’m just talking about the free apps that come with your phone.)

If you prefer “old school” methods, you can bring a pen and paper with you to write (or use a spiral notepad). This method is slow and also requires you to type what you’ve written into your manuscript when you get home, but it is possible to write that way. I did it for years before we had modern communication technology. Even now, I tend to keep a paper copy of my latest chapter in my purse for proofreading and revision. I pull it out and work on it whenever I am sitting in the car in a parking lot waiting for John to return.

Another great time to write is while riding in commuter mass transit. Planes, trains, and busses all require you to sit for an extended length of time doing nothing. That’s a great opportunity to write. Some mass transit systems will even provide electrical outlets for your laptop. When you’re waiting in an airport lobby (and we all hope to be back there some day after the pandemic), don’t spend your time staring at the video screens above you. Work on your novel instead.

By the way, I am NOT suggesting that you write while you are driving, even if you are sitting in stopped traffic during rush hour. Don’t try it! Even texting while driving is dangerous (and illegal where I come from).

Maybe that’s another good reason (in addition to helping the environment and relieving personal stress) to commute by mass transit when you can. Think of all the writing you can accomplish!

Susan 4/16/2021

How Are Those Writing Resolutions Coming?

We are now approximately one month into 2021. It’s a good time to take a moment and assess how well your New Year’s resolutions are coming. On January 1, everybody talks about them, but then we all seem to forget very quickly. How often do we follow up on those things?

Because I announced my resolutions publicly this year, it only seems fair to tell you all how I am doing. My first resolution was to write at least 500 words of fiction a day until the first draft of the current manuscript is complete. So far, I have managed (somehow) to keep up with that. John and my latest fantasy novel Prophecy’s Malignant Son just passed the 80,000 word mark and is in the home stretch. We are hoping to have the first draft finished by March. An artist friend is currently creating the book cover.

My second resolution was to learn more about book marketing. I haven’t done as much of that yet as I should. I’ve signed up for some KDP classes on Amazon, but I don’t feel like I have a real understanding of marketing yet.

My third resolution was to develop a marketing strategy for the new book. Sadly, I am falling down on this one so far. How to market a novel without spending a ton of money is still a mystery. Writing is easy for me; marketing is not.

As a side note, I am pleased to announce that John and I made enough on our book sales in 2020 to be required to report the income on our taxes. WooHoo! Though I must confess that the IRS sets a low bar for what must be reported — a very low bar — so the need to report is not quite as cool as it first seems. But it will still be exciting to report income as authors. We’re professionals now!

My fourth resolution was to come up with an outline for the next book and to start writing it by June. I’ve already started playing with story ideas, and I should be able to meet this goal.

And finally, I resolved to keep writing this blog every Friday. So far so good!

Talk to you next week!

-Susan 1/29/2021

A Few Points About Multiple Viewpoints

So whose novel is it anyway? Well, yes, of course, it’s the author’s book. But which character or characters are the focus of the story? Whose thoughts and observations drive the narrative? From which character’s point of view is the story told?

When I first started writing, I did not understand the concept of character point of view. I’m certainly no expert on the subject today, but I have done enough story critiquing (and had my own writing critiqued enough) to recognize a point of view shift in a story when I see it. No doubt there are treatises and “how-to” books out there to describe and define what constitutes character point of view. I don’t feel qualified to do that.

What I can do is give you my favorite example of viewpoint shift within a story. In Chapter Three of the Fellowship of the Ring (“Three is Company”), the story is mostly being told from Frodo’s point of view (though not completely). At one point, as the Hobbits are traveling through the Shire, the viewpoint abruptly shifts for about a paragraph to a “fox passing through the wood on business of his own….” We read the fox’s thoughts and are told “but he never found out any more about it.” The next paragraph then shifts back to Frodo’s point of view as he wakes up the next morning. I always felt sorry for that fox because he never learned the full story!

Many years ago, a person critiquing one of my manuscripts told me that a book should be written from a single character’s point of view. I respectfully disagree. That is certainly the most commonly used method of storytelling in modern novels, but I have also read excellent novels told in multiple viewpoints. On the whole, however, if there are going to be multiple point of view characters, I prefer a clear demarcation between viewpoint shifts, such as separate chapters for different viewpoints or, at least, section breaks between them.

As a writer, my “default setting” tends toward ensemble casts, in which the book is told from more than one character’s point of view. There were five point of view characters in 60th Hour and there are three in the current draft of Prophecy’s Malignant Son.

I suspect my preference comes from my fondness for table-top role playing games. In a really good, story-driven rpg, the game master makes sure that each player-character at the table gets his or her moment in the spotlight. If one character is the real protagonist and the others are just there to bolster that character’s plotline, it will rapidly become a boring game for anyone except the person playing the main character.

There are both advantages and challenges to writing a novel with multiple point of view characters. Multiple viewpoints allow the action of the story to occur in two different places at the same time. The author can create mini-cliffhangers as the story abruptly shifts from the events involving one character to a different character. In addition, the writer can have fun describing a character in different ways depending on whose viewpoint is currently being portrayed.

One of the challenges with writing multiple viewpoint novels involves making sure that each viewpoint character is different from the others. Each character in a novel should be unique, of course, with a separate personality, but that is particularly true with point of view characters. Their thoughts, experiences, and outlook on the world should differ from the others.

Timing can also be tricky with multiple viewpoints. With a single viewpoint character, the story tends to be linear. With multiple viewpoint characters in different scenes, it may get confusing for the reader as to what events are occurring at what point. You may need to draft a timeline as an author to keep track of concurrent events.

The recent movie Dunkirk had a fascinating twist on the concept of multiple viewpoints and timing, with three stories set in different timetables being told at the same time. Even though the movie announced that would happen right from the beginning, it still took me a large part of the movie to actually appreciate what was going on.

The idea of timing recently hit home for me, when I was drafting Prophecy’s Malignant Son. I changed the length of time that passed in one chapter from a week to a month. That meant I had to revise the timeline for the concurrent chapters involving the other point of view characters to make the story consistent. Despite the extra work, I still think the story will be better for the change.

There is another question I cannot answer. When, if ever, do you hyphenate the words “point of view” when used in a sentence? For purposes of this blog post, I decided to forego hyphens between those three words, but if I have done so in error, you can all laugh at me behind my back!

-Susan 1/22/2021

Fantasy Novels and the Real World

We have an interesting power as fantasy authors. We can invent a unique society that operates according to the rules we choose. As long as the world we write about remains consistent with its own rules and is familiar enough to be engaging to our readers, we have a lot of latitude. Unlike other genres, we don’t necessarily have to follow scientific laws or real life conventions. Obviously, certain types of fantasy, such as urban fantasy or historical fantasy, may be bound within the strictures of the real world, but even then, the fantasy author can bend those conventions to suit the story.

At the same time, however, fantasy authors are themselves people who live in the real world, and our experiences undoubtedly influence what we write. The relationships we have, the people we meet, and the milestones of our individual lives shape our writing, just as they do for authors in any other genre. Likewise, the concepts of the real world — love, faith, friendship, hope, loyalty, determination, war, peace, etc. — not only apply to fantasy stories, they are critical to help make the otherworldly setting seem realistic.

As a fantasy reader and writer, one of my primary motivations has always been escape from the real world. My goal in writing fantasy fiction is to entertain, not to make commentary on society or politics. Like Professor Tolkien, I tend to dislike allegory. I prefer fantasy universes that exist on their own merits and are not just our world with the serial numbers scratched off. (Incidentally, this comment does not apply to fantasy stories that are supposed to take place in the real world, such as historical fantasy or urban fantasy. Those are fine. Instead, I’m talking about the stories that purport to be set in an entirely different world from ours, but really aren’t.)

But even for fantasy authors like me who try not to write about the real world, I wonder how much our writing is subconsciously influenced by the events occurring around us. The unprecedented year we just collectively experienced will likely leave its mark on us all. The extent to which that affects our fantasy stories, either on a conscious or subconscious level, remains to be seen. After “sheltering at home” for so long, I know that I will forever think differently about stories involving a princess locked in a tower with only a magic mirror to let her view the world outside.

-Susan 1/8/2021

How Did You Discover Your Favorite Genre?

If you’re an author or a reader of fiction (or both), I’d love to hear the story of how you discovered your favorite literary genre. Feel free to leave a comment after this post or write a comment on Facebook to let me know.

My favorite genre is fantasy. (Yeah, I know…duh! If you’ve been reading my blog posts for more than two minutes you already know that.) My introduction to the genre came through a grammar lesson.

I was in a seventh grade English class learning to diagram sentences. Not exactly the world’s most exciting activity. Although the concept of diagramming sentences was new for most of us in class, it made sense almost instantly to me. While that may be nice in terms of grades, anyone who has mastered a class activity too quickly knows the problem. Once you do, you then must endure hours of the same information being explained in different ways by a dedicated teacher trying to instill understanding in the rest of the class.

Which is to say: I was bored.

Part of the class lesson included a little workbook with sample paragraphs intended to be used for practice in diagramming. As I flipped through the work book in an effort to find something interesting to read, I discovered that each page of sample paragraphs contained a mini book review.

One of the book reviews talked about a Hobbit who found a magic ring. The book sounded intriguing, so I checked it out of the library. After I finished reading it, I attempted to check out the trilogy written by the same author. One of the three books had already been checked out by another patron of the library, so I was forced to wait for the next visit. (The fact that I still remember that after over 50 years shows just how anxious I was to read them.) Eventually I got to read all three books of the Lord of the Rings. I was so young that I didn’t really understand a lot of the social structure portrayed among the “big folk” in Rohan and Gondor, but I dearly loved the Hobbits.

In high school and college, friends introduced me to a wide range of popular fantasy authors at the time: Burroughs, McCaffrey, McKillip, Kurtz, De Camp, etc. By then, I was completely hooked.

Fantasy is now a major genre with its own sub-genres (high fantasy, humorous fantasy, sword and sorcery, urban fantasy, etc.) I recently learned about a relatively new subgenre called “litrpg” (or something similar to that). I’m really not sure which fantasy subgenre I like the best.

So, you all have now heard my story. What’s yours? What is your favorite literary genre and how did you discover it? If you’re a fantasy fan, do you prefer one subgenre over the others?

I look forward to hearing from you.

-Susan 10/2/20

Our Next Exclamation Mark Anthology

When Emerald Cove decided to try its first themed anthology (Kidnapped!), I expected all our stories to be similar. After all, we were writing on the same theme. To my mind, kidnapping stories followed a standard structure: a person is abducted, often for ransom, and the story revolves around what happens after that. Furthermore, we were all science-fiction/fantasy fans, so it was likely (although not required) that our stories would fall somewhere within that genre.

The stories did indeed fall within the realm of speculative fiction, but beyond that, all similarities ended. Danny opted for modern day superheroes. Sue Dawe, who is one of the kindest and most joyful people I know, surprised us all by writing a frightening, alien-abduction story. Stephanie gave us an amusing look at the twisted psychology of an author. John and I came up with a light-hearted take on medieval highwaymen (and yes, John was involved — see my earlier blog post about what is missing from Lord Larrin’s Daughter.) Jefferson…well, there is only one Jefferson Putnam Swycaffer in the entire universe, and his stories are as unique and interesting as he is. (Just teasing, Jefferson! He and I have been friends for over 40 years, and he is a great guy and an amazing writer.)

Emerald Cove’s second exclamation mark anthology was Stolen!

In case you are wondering, we don’t really call them that. “Exclamation mark anthology” is way too long to say in casual conversation. We originally added the exclamation mark to the end of Kidnapped! because we hoped it would differentiate the book from other works with that same name. We foolishly forgot that internet search engines ignore punctuation. By the time Stolen! came out, the exclamation mark had become our “thing” so we decided to keep using it.

When we started working on Stolen!, I was expecting variation in our stories, and that was exactly what happened. Not only were there stylistic differences within the science-fiction/fantasy genre, but there were also variations on the types of things that could be stolen. The stories involved the theft of things as diverse as gender identity, artistic creativity, and souls.

And a fish. One mustn’t forget the pilfered fish.

So now Emerald Cove is working on its third exclamation mark anthology: Haunted! As I mentioned in a prior blog post, all of us at the Cove had been in a writing slump since the pandemic’s shelter-in-place started. Now, thanks to the wonders of Zoom critique meetings, we are back to writing. In anticipation of our next Zoom critique meeting on August 12, we are already starting to place full and partial manuscripts into OneDrive for review. I can’t wait to see what variations on the theme we all come up with this time.

Susan 7/31/20