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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Show and Tell Time!

Picture Credit: http://blog.aacriminallaw.com/drug-offenses/
Okay, let's take a look at the oft-repeated phrase "Show, don't tell." What does it mean? Any writing is telling a story, right? No matter what, you are using words to explain (unless you are literally drawing a picture).

The idea is to explain something so that readers will understand the feelings of the characters and what is happening in the scene without informing them point-blank.

Think about real life--or even good movies, for that matter. What makes you recognize an emotion? It's almost never the fact that a person spells it out for us. What specific things are happening that make you recognize an emotion?

Let's look at an example that fits in with the fact that today is Halloween:

John was afraid of the mummy. He wanted to get away, but he was trapped.--Telling

John swallowed hard and pressed tighter against the smooth wall. The mummy advanced one step after another, it's yellowed bandage hanging so that it's leathery skin poked through. John's eyes searched again for any opening or crevice that would save him. But the wall's polished surface didn't change. He couldn't keep from looking back at the monster, and he gasped at the air that no longer seemed breathable.--Showing

When you explain a few specifics about what John was doing, you no longer need to state that he was afraid, that he wanted to get away, or that he was trapped. The same is true if you want to say that a forest is pretty. What specific details does the main character notice that makes him or her think the forest is pretty? For that matter, why is the main character noticing those details?

Giving every possible detail would make for an insanely boring book--there is a difference between the dry facts of a text book and a novel. Choose the specific details that your character notices based on who they are, what they're doing, what they're thinking about, and their past experiences. A handful of specifics let the reader get caught up in the drama and FEEL what the main character feels. A list of the character's emotions is too sterile to make a reader feel what you want.

Basically, the rule is to filter everything through the main character's head. If he or she is happy, explain to me what happy feels like. What does it look like in the things around him or her (the way the things are perceived)? It doesn't matter if you are describing scenery, the main character, a side character, or anything else. The description should help the reader understand what is going on in the main character's head.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Characterization--Let's Get Real

Picture Credit: http://www.freepik.com/free-vector/vector-cartoon-

Ever notice how there are only actually a couple smurfs? In the whole smurf village there are only a small handful of individuals. For the most part, they look the same. They talk the same. They react the same. They all have quite the dependence on Papa Smurf to do all the thinking. They even have the same voice.

Don't get me wrong, I grew up on the smurfs and they should remain just the same. But when this starts describing all the characters in a book it is likely a sign of a problem.

Just to test yourself, take the names out of entire dialogues. How easy is it to hear a difference in the way the characters express themselves and they way they think? People don't all sound the same--neither will good characters. If your characters are all sounding or thinking alike, re-evaluate them. Dig deeper. As a writer, you should know more about your characters than the reader will ever learn. Not just the main characters, either. Think about each character that makes an appearance in the book:
  • What are their goals?
  • What are their likes and dislikes?
  • How do they perceive themselves?
  • How driven are they to pursue what they want?
  • What are their quirks?
  • What is their baggage?
  • How do they react in scary situations?
  • How do they react in a crowd?
  • What makes them self-conscious?
  • What is their background like?
  • What do they think about their life?
  • How doe they deal with stress?
  • What sort of medical conditions have they dealt with in life?
  • What is their financial condition and how does it effect them?
  • What is their religious preference?
  • Do they like pets?
  • How do they look at others around them?
  • What prejudices do they have?
  • What are their shortcomings?
  • Are they ever inclined to be impulsive, if so what situations draw that out?
  • How much exercise do they get?

The list can go on and on. If you want to REALLY get to know your characters, pick up "The Plot Thickens" by Noah Lukeman. By the time you answer his pages of questions, you will know your characters inside and out.

Once you get to know your characters, the point is NOT to put every detail onto the page. The better you know your characters, the more realistic their actions and emotions will be. That is something the reader will notice.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Horse Research

Picture Credit: http://blog.lib.umn.edu/

In my book, my characters rely on horses for everyday business, and my main character loves the freedom she feels when she rides. Unfortunately, I have very little experiences with horses. Even though horses aren't discussed with any detail, I felt that my lack of knowledge about the animals would shine through. I spent time researching several different aspects of horses to make sure I keep them believable to all of you who have more hands-on experience with them.

A good website to learn more horse facts is: http://historicalnovelists.tripod.com/equineda.htm

Horse Sizes:
Pony- Technically, a pony is any non-Arabian horse under 14.2 hands tall (a hand is four inches). The generic idea of a pony is from 9 to 14 hands, and 250 - 850 pounds.

Light Horse- These are between 14.2 to 17 hands and weigh 600-1200 pounds. The average weight is 900 pounds.

Draft Horse- These are over 17 hands and weigh more than 1400 pounds. A draft horse is not a plow horse, because it weighs too much and would sink in the mud. Big plow horses are mixed breeds of draft horses and light horses.

Not counting thoroughbred racing, horses can be trained to draw loads around age 3. They are trained to the saddle at age 4 and are considered in their prime at 5. A 20-year-old horse is old, but they can live into their 30's. Although, historically when horses were treated poorly--especially in the Victorian era horses were completely broken down by the time they hit 12 years.

Horses working or exercising less than 2 hours per day are idle. Light work is between 2 and 3 hours per day. Medium work is between 4 and 5 hours. More than 5 hours of work in one day is heavy labor.

Feed must be split into two to four feedings per day and the horse must be cooled down before eating. They must also be allowed an hour to digest before resuming work. Mules and donkeys are much more hardy, leading them to be preferred by much of the lower class.

In the early 20th century, US Army daily horse rations were: 12 lbs of oats and 14lbs of hay per horse (figuring for the average 900lb horse).

A horse also needs 5 to 12 gallons of water per day and 2 to 3 ounces of salt per week.

Horseshoes were invented in the Middle Ages. Before that time period, horses could only be ridden for so long before the riders must wait for the hooves to grow out again.

Horses who do not work on hard ground or for extended periods of time will not wear out their hooves sufficiently to require horseshoes. However, if the horse lives in a damp climate, they will be much more likely to need horseshoes because the damp pasture will soften their hooves.

Horseshoes must be changed every 6 to 10 weeks.

Even owners of unshod horses must inspect their feet regularly and either remove excess growth or level uneven wear.

Walk- One foot at a time. Horses use this for leisure and when they are heavily burdened. It can be kept up all day. The pace is around 3-4 miles per hour.

Trot- Two diagonally opposite feet move while the remaining pair bear the weight. This is a bouncy gait. The pace is around 8-10 miles per hour.

Canter- Only one hoof is down at any time. The horse steps the same as a gallop, but it is an easier pace for the horse, around 10-17 miles per hour.

Gallop- Only one hoof is down at any time. This is always short-term. The speed varies depending on the athletic ability of the horse, but an average horse can go somewhere around 30 miles per hour. Thoroughbreds (meant for distance and not speed) can go 40 miles per hour. Quarter horses (meant for speed and not distance) can go up to 50 miles per hour.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Join a Writers' Goup

Picture Credit: http://www.writingforward.
Few things are as helpful as joining a writers' group. I belong to the League of Utah Writers, which I joined in 2009. Since I joined the group, I've been to some amazing conferences where I've learned techniques to better my writing. All the techniques I currently use for every step of the writing process are things I've learned from the classes.

I've also been privileged to meet some incredible people. I've met and talked with other authors and have been able to learn from their experiences. I took classes from the editor Clint Johnson (no relation of mine) and came to realize how much he could help me. I had him edit my book and have gained immensely from his help. My book wouldn't be what it is today without his guidance. I've met agents and people representing publishing houses so I could better understand the options I'm interested in for getting my work published.

Oh yeah, and there's the fact that it's all been a TON of FUN!

I started writing back in 2000, but in the 9 years I tried off and on to write I didn't learn a fraction of what I've gained in the last 3 years since I started participating with the League of Utah Writers.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Make it a Job

Picture Credit: http://www.teenwriters
When I say to make writing a job, I don't mean that it has to be drudgery--if you hate writing then you're trying to break into the wrong business. But if you only write when you feel like it or when you aren't busy then you won't write.

Set a time aside for yourself every day for when you will write. Also, set a minimum requirement for yourself of the amount of work you will get done every day. Then keep your appointment!

Some people say they will only write when they are feeling inspired. If that's the case, then I'd recommend feeling inspired on a very regular basis. Others say that if they are struggling with writers' block then they put it off for another day. The best way to get over writers' block is to push past it--consider it the brain's way of trying to get off being lazy.

I know from my own experience that if I let myself off the hook whenever I have writers' block by surfing the internet, playing computer games, or leaving my computer to do something else entirely, then I start having writers' block every time I sit down. I can also say that if I don't have a minimum amount of work I require of myself or a set time when I will work, it doesn't get done.

Looking at everything you must do to get your work ready for the publisher can be daunting, but if you will schedule time for yourself and use discipline to take it one bite at a time, it's amazing how quickly it goes and how rewarding it is watching your work improve.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Making a Sword

Picture Credit: http://medievalswords.stormthecastle.
One of the interesting tidbits I researched for my novel is the process of making swords. My characters function in a fantasy world similar to our own medieval period, so I specifically looked at making medieval swords.

First off, I need to forewarn readers that this contains interesting facts about sword-making, not step-by-step instructions. I did find a website specifically geared toward people trying to learn the craft of swordsmithing, so if that is your intent, visit it: http://www.anvilfire.com/FAQs/swords_faq_index.htm.

  • The average completed sword weighed 2-4 pounds on average--no more than 10 pounds for a very heavy "sword of war".
  • Swordsmithing is a dying craft (due to a lack of need today) and the swords manufactured today are of a lesser quality than the average medieval sword.
  • Swords came in different price ranges based on quality. A cheap sword could take a week by itself to make. Expensive swords could take up to a few months.
  • Before the "Work" is Begun, the swordsmith must look at exactly what metals should be used and the size and shape of the desired weapon
    • Swordsmiths specialized in making swords and were much more reliable for weapons than the run-of-the-mill blacksmith who worked mainly with softer metals and molds
    • An experienced swordsman will have his or her specific preferences for the weapon--customers worked with swordsmiths over a period of time, with each weapon telling the swordsmith what should be different next time.
  • Forging takes place
    • By the 10th century, swords were made out of steel (a combination of iron and carbon from charcoal) and iron. They forged the blade by taking bars of each and "folding" them together over heat to give the sword optimal strength and flexibility. 
      • If it was too flexible it wouldn't be as sharp and it would bend in battle, but if it was too stiff then it would break
    • While shaping the blade, quenching (or cooling it rapidly) will harden it and slow cooling will make it flexible so they used a combination of the two.
    • Too much heat in the fire or too little heat would make the sword brittle. Bellows were invented to help keep the heat regulated--before they were invented the apprentices would blow into the fire.
  • Annealing
    • After the sword is the right shape, it is slow cooled (usually wrapped in insulating material) to soften it enough to make the edges easy to grind and sharpen.
  • Polishing
    • Grinding is often referred to polishing. Initial grinding takes place at a stone grinding wheel, but then it is fine-tuned with small rocks or metals.
  • Hardening
    • Now the sword is put back in the fire to be quenched multiple times to increase the strength.
  • Tempering 
    • When the blade is done, the fine-tuned hardening is called tempering. The fire is kept much cooler and the blade is put in for only a short time before it is pulled back out and quenched.
  • Attaching the Hilt
    • Now the blade is done and the hilt should be attached. Hilts (like the blades) were specific to the swordsmen's tastes. Often, a cutler (or specialist in hilts) would be the one to attach the hilt.

For more fun, look at common misconceptions regarding swords and armor here: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/aams/hd_aams.htm

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Story Problem

Picture Credit: http://darrellcreswell.wordpress.com/
In writing, one of the key elements to evaluate is the story problem.

The story problem is the key issue that drives the characters and plot. It should be a big-enough problem that it takes a book (or movie) to solve. If a short conversation between a couple characters would clear everything up, then the story problem lacks the intensity it needs in order to drive the story.

There are 3 major types of story problems:

  1. Danger or threat
    • This can be a threat dealing with loss of life, safety, or happiness
    • There does not have to be a gun involved for a character to be threatened
  2. Hardship or lack of opportunity
    • The character begins the story in an undesirable situation and works to get out
  3. Mystery
    • Anything that generates curiosity
    • The character (and reader) could be trying to figure out an odd event, a secret, or gaining understanding
Once you identify the story problem (or problems), consider the types of obstacles the characters will have to confront. Also consider the types of things the characters you pick will need to try before they can overcome the obstacles.

Next, look at some of the troubles the characters will run into while trying to solve the story problem. If the character is invincible in every way and brushes past all problems the story will quickly become boring. Even super heroes have some weakness they are fighting against. Some types of troubles are:

  • Disadvantages- reasons they are the underdog more than someone else would be in their position
  • Uncertainty- misdirection in what they are trying to do versus what they should be doing if they understood the situation better
  • Conflict
    • The "good guy" versus the "bad guy"
    • The "good guy" versus other "good guys" due to differences in opinion, personality, or motivations
    • The "good guy" versus the setting
    • The "good guy" versus himself or herself
  • Increasing troubles- if a trouble is constant for an extended period of time, it loses its urgency
    • Raise the stakes
    • Intensify
    • Setback

The problem, the obstacles, and the characters' attempted solutions, and the characters' troubles will generate the plot.

  1. An incident is needed to introduce the story problem
  2. The character faces the problem
  3. The character reacts to the problem
  4. The result from the character's action is seen
    • This can be a positive or negative result, as long as there is something to tell
  5. The character faces the result of his or her actions
The story will run through these steps until it resolves itself in a natural way. Surprise endings are great, so long as they feel natural and unavoidable based on the characters and the world the characters live in.

Hope you find this look at the story problem helpful! Happy writing.