Mindee Arnett
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POSTS IN CATEGORY: Writing Tips

Building Suspense, the art of emergence

So this past Saturday I had the lovely fortune to present a workshop on suspense at the Wayne College Writers Workshop. I had an absolute blast with the class. The participants were attentive and eager and all things wonderful.

Anyhow, the materials I presented seemed to go over pretty well, and I thought I’d share a little bit of it here. Cheesy at it sounds, I created an acronym out of SUSPENSE. And while I won’t go through all of them here—some of them are fairly obvious (the first S = Sympathetic Characters)—I did want to share my favorite “letter” of the acronym, the final “E.”

In the workshop, the final E = Emergent. Here’s what the slides looked like:

–Definition: arising as a natural or logical consequence.
•As much as possible, the events in the story should emerge from what happened before; they should be consequential.
•Avoid the “and then” problem (as described by the creators of South Park on mtvu.com).
–Definition of the “And Then” problem:
•If you draw a flowchart of the events in your story and find yourself using “and then” to connect them, you have a problem.
•Instead, your connectors should be “therefore” or “but.”
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Here’s an example of how this works in an actual story:
katniss
I know this is pretty simple, but it’s also super duper important. If you want to have any kind of suspense in your story, if you want a carefully plotted and tightly woven story in general, then you’ve got to employ this emergence technique. Not doing this in a story is one my all-time biggest pet peeves. I recommend to the participants that if they aren’t sure if they were employing emergence, they should map out their stories in flow chart format like that above. I’ll go ahead and recommend the same to you.
Happy Writing!

The Myth of the Crappy First Draft

First, let me start this post with two caveats.

1. As with any writing advice ever given, the only truth is this: Find what works for YOU and stick with it.

2. With a first draft of Avalon 2 to deliver, I really don’t have time for blog posts, but I feel compelled to write this one. Please excuse all typos and other awfulness in terms of grammar, punctuation, or even logical sense.

Okay, so I know a whole bunch of you are in the middle of NaNoWriMO, and I think that’s great. Ra-ra! You can do it. I’ll be your cheerleader, promise. It really is great…but, I’m here to tell you that it’s okay if you’re not doing NaNo or if you decide to cool off and not meet those strenuous word counts, if you decide to take your time in other words. And here’s why:

The myth of the crappy first draft is a myth.

There, I said it. Now, before you roll your eyes or accuse me of being some kind of snob or first draft show off, let me explain. I used to buy into the crappy first draft thing. The first 4 novels I wrote were all written with the idea that I just needed to write as fast as the gingerbread man runs and worry about correcting everything in the second draft. However, those first 4 novels sucked. They never saw the light of my agent’s inbox, or any agent inbox for that matter.

It wasn’t until I started writing my 5th novel, The Nightmare Affair, that I came to understand why those first books were so bad and why I failed at them so completely. The answer? I am not good at writing a crappy first draft. Wait, that’s not right. I’m actually really good at it. Too good. I used to write first drafts so bad that no amount of revising or rewriting could ever turn them into something other than total stinky crap.

Now, by first draft I mean the moment when you have a beginning, middle, and end all together, when you’ve taken the protagonist from reaction to action, from inciting incident to denouement. That’s usually what people consider a first draft. For me, in those early books, I reached that end point really easily. I flew by each word and paragraph and chapter certain that whatever I got wrong I could fix later. This idea, is in fact, very true. You CAN fix everything later. The problem was not with the method behind the idea of crappy first drafts. The problem was with me. I tried to rewrite those bad books but by the time I’d torn everything down and rebuilt it again twice, if not three times, I’d lost my faith in the book. Even worse, I’d lost my love for it. In the end, I set the books aside, broken and forlorn, and moved on to greener pastures of a new story. I wouldn’t be surprised if that sounds very familiar to some of you.

When I started Nightmare, I decided that I was going to take my time with the first draft. I was going to revise each chapter and scene as I went, doing my best to correct mistakes and to keep the story in line right from the start. If I went off track, which happened a couple of times (always does), I would stop and rewrite until I was on track again. I’m here to tell you, people, this change was storytelling magic for me. Nightmare was by no means perfect or submission ready by the time I wrote The End, but it wasn’t crappy either. It was actually kinda decent. Even more importantly, I’d managed to write a solid story. The structure was good. It didn’t need to be torn down and rebuilt multiple times. The relief of discovering this was so great, I’m still feeling it, honestly. It enabled not to get discouraged and to ultimately write a book publication worthy.

I’ve written 2 novels the same way since and both of them are more less the same in structure and character arcs as they were when I wrote the first draft. Don’t get me wrong. I revised a lot. A whole lot. I just did it while drafting. It’s a method that works for me. Who knows, it might work for you too.

Happy writing!

Writer Brain, a Follow-on Post

So the incredibly talented Laini Taylor wrote this amazing post yesterday about having a jerky writer brain. If you haven’t read it yet, you should. There’s something very comforting in knowing that someone as awesome as Laini Taylor struggles sometimes with getting the job done. And I completely agree with everything she has to say, especially the part about how weird it is that the very thing that gives us our creativity is also the source of our struggles. But the thing is, my experience with this problem isn’t at all like hers.

Let me explain. First up, a confession: I have never in my life written a novel out of order. I start with chapter 1 and end at “the end.” Always. I am incapable of writing a story any other way. And yes, I imagine that Laini might give me a cat hiss if she were ever to read this. But the thing is, our journeys are still similar. I struggled to write something publishable for years. I wrote four whole novels of impressive (read: ridiculous) length. My first novel was 180k—can you imagine? That’s two YA novels in one.

And the thing is, writing all those words was easy. I would sit down at my computer, set a word count goal, and then vomit out sentences and paragraphs until I met it. And I would do it without even thinking about it, with the critical part of my brain asleep. Kind of like this:

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Trouble was, these novels, complete and whole as they were—with characters, something resembling a plot, a beginning, middle, and end—all sucked. Big time. Did you read the part about vomit? Yeah, I really meant it. I wrote those first four novels a bit like this:

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But just as Laini suggests in her post, when I sat down to write The Nightmare Affair, I decided I needed to do something different. I needed to write a novel that wasn’t just vomit. But unlike Laini, that didn’t involve tricking the critical part of my brain into staying quiet long enough to let me get the story out. No, it meant just the opposite. I had to wake up my critical brain and force it to pay attention and do its job. That part of my brain is the smart part, the one that can find plot holes, detect character inconsistencies, even rat out the boring scenes.

And guess what? It worked. The moral of the story, I think, is that all writers need to find the way to trick the critical part of their brain into working for them instead of against them. Once you do, magic will happen. And if you’re looking for another visual, I imagine it might be a bit like this (because seriously, Sherlock without Watson would just suck, and vice versa).

tumblr_m9b2gzZgIv1r70n32Happy writing!

 

World-Building Avengers Style (Let Your Characters Be Your Guide)

World-building is hard. World-building takes a lot of time and energy. And for a lot of aspiring writers, poor world-building is the kiss of death. Getting the world right, making it believable, is essential for your story to be successful, especially if you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi.

In my experience, the best key for unlocking the mysteries of your make your believe world is the characters. They hold all the answers as to how the world exists and why, because they already live in it — yeah? All you have to do is start asking them for the answers.

Okay, that sounds a little existential, but I really mean it. If you’re uncertain about the shape or your world, explore your characters. What’s character A’s backstory? What does he/she like to wear? Why? How did he/she get those clothes or that type of spaceship or that particular magical skill set? The more you answer these questions, the deeper and richer your world will become and the more it will make sense to your readers.

Your characters will also provide you the level of world-building you actually need to include in your story. A lot of writers I know tend to skimp on the world-building in early drafts (myself include). Consequently, my feedback on these drafts tends to be full of questions on how stuff works and why. A lot of these questions occur to me because I don’t understand why a character is behaving a certain way or how they had access to these particular resources, etc. Which means, that the answer to these questions will come through the characters themselves.

There are also those writers who love to world-build so much that they include too many, and usually pointless, details. Again, the solution here is to stick as close to the characters as possible Would character B, a teenager sneak thief and orphan, really know the name of the son of the cousin of the regional governor of Outlandia? Yeah, probably not.

The best visual metaphor I can use for this idea comes from the super-awesome movie you might have heard of known as The Avengers. There are many reasons why this movie is so good (the biggest of which is because it was written/directed by the Geek God of Awesome known as Joss Whedon), but one of the most critical reasons is because of all the other movies which came before it. Think of those other movies, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, as really extensive backstories, all of which were necessary for The Avengers to make sense and for the characters and world to be believable. Do the same with your characters. Answer all the questions, explore of their reasons for being. And then remember to only include the details that really matter in your manuscript for your Avengers story.

Happy Writing!