Feb 01 2016

Joan’s Picarto Stream

PicartoJust a note to say I’ve started doing livestreams again, sharing bits of my writing process on Picarto. I’ll be doing this every Wednesday, off and on from about lunchtime until I go to bed.

Eventually these streams will be for Patrons only, but for now anyone can watch – you don’t even have to log in to use the sidebar chat. Though if you do register with Picarto, you can subscribe to my channel and get email reminders when I stream. Hope to see some of you later today!

Jan 30 2016

Adding Depth with Character Bias

BiasToday I’ve got a few tips for those wanting to brush up on their characterization skills. Credit for these ideas goes mostly to Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time; few people can pull off character bias like Jordan could.

If you want to give your story depth, the first place to start is with your characters. When a character is just a name on a page; they come across as one-dimensional and boring. And readers can tell when you haven’t done your groundwork. So how do you make your characters into memorable, unique individuals?

Rule #1: A character is more than just eyes, height and hair color.

For an inexperienced writer, the temptation is to use a character’s physical appearance to make them stand out. (Purple eyes are so common in fanfiction that they’ve actually become a trope.) But honestly, who preens in the mirror every morning, admiring their ebony/chestnut/strawberry-blond tresses while batting their deep blue/brown/hazel eyes? Do you? A character going about his daily life isn’t thinking about how he looks, so unless his appearance is immediately relevant to the plot, it can wait a few pages. Or a few chapters. Or you can leave it out altogether, and let the reader fill in the details. Even with secondary characters you can go easy on the physical description, because chances are the reader isn’t going to remember more than one or two details by the end of the page. Only when your protagonist is meeting someone for the first time can you (occasionally) get away with the full run-down.

When it comes right down to it, looks aren’t what’s going to make your readers remember a character; its their archetype which is important. If I say the word ‘busybody’, your mind immediately fills in the blanks, perhaps even with the physical characteristics of a person you know. The same with ‘mentor’, ‘workaholic’, and ‘genius’. If you do go with a physical descriptor, you’ll get more mileage out of words like ‘athletic’, ‘well-dressed’, or ‘frazzled’, than you will from ‘tall’, ‘dark’ and ‘handsome’. Try to stay away from words that describe personality directly (impatient, hard-working, etc.), because it’s better to show this in the narrative than tell us up front.

Rule #2: Give your character biases.

There’s far more to a fully-realized character than just their physical presence. Think about your favorite characters. Can you imagine what they would be most likely to do in a crisis? When the author has done their job well, you can picture which ones would run and hide, which would hold their ground and fight, which would think of a witty line of dialogue to punctuate the moment. If that character were the keeper of a dire secret, who would reveal it to the enemy, who would confide in a friend, and who would take it to their grave? You know the answers to these questions because the author has effectively conveyed that character’s bias.

So what do I mean by character bias? I mean the unique set of life experiences which inform her decision-making process. No person is a blank slate. They’re going to have foods they like, a favorite color, and people they’d rather not hang out with. This sort of bias isn’t a bad thing – it helps us make decisions more quickly, whether the choice is where to go for dinner or which of the oncoming horde to shoot first – but it can be a source of conflict between characters. Conflict is good. It drives the story forward and keeps your reader interested. Don’t be afraid to give your characters conflicting biases.

Rule #3: Determine where your character is coming from.

If you want to determine your character’s unique set of biases, the first place to start is with their background. Where did they grow up? What is the socioeconomic situation there? The geography? What do they, or their parents, do for work? All of these things are going to affect the way they think and act. Someone who works in fashion will notice what people are wearing. A man who lives by the ocean might use water metaphors more than others. Someone who works outdoors is going to pay more attention to the weather than the guy who telecommutes. A little bit of research into the trappings of your character’s trade can go a long way when it comes to believability.

Don’t be afraid to let characters make mistakes because of their bias. Just because one character knows that those clouds mean a storm is coming doesn’t mean the guy with the boat does. Or maybe your protagonist’s heart-felt apology bombs because the recipient doesn’t like chocolate. All of these things are potential points for conflict, and conflict is good.

Finally, remember that each character is the hero of their own story.

Yes, even the villain. Ninety-nine percent of the people you meet are going to be more concerned with their own daily struggles than they are with those of the stranger beside them. They must be convinced, cajoled, or coerced into joining the hero’s cause. Even then, they should have their own unique reasons to participate. Because honestly, ‘We met in a bar and decided to save the world together’ only works in D&D campaigns.

Sep 26 2015

Why White People are Afraid to Talk About Race

As someone who does a lot of signal boosting re #BlackLivesMatter and the We Need Diverse Books initiative, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in the reactions of my close friends and neighbors. “I don’t see race,” sums up a lot of them. “I don’t think issue X is really about race,” say a lot of others. In a normally quite empathetic group of people, this one blind spot is distressing. Worst are those who harp on immigration issues when the real problem is that they’re afraid to communicate with their Hispanic neighbors–but I’m not here to talk about them today.

It’s a writer’s job to see beneath the skin (whatever color it may be), to figure out how people tick so we can write believable characters. I’ve established a lexicon for translating these common responses to diversity issues into plain English. Here are a few.

“I don’t see race.” Translation: “Didn’t we do away with segregation back before I was born? Why are we still talking about this?”

“I don’t think issue X is really about race.” Translation: “But I’m not a racist. How can this be about race when I’m part of the system propagating this problem?” (There are other problems with this one, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

“#AllLivesMatter” Translation: “I’m suffering too. Why did nobody talk about this issue until it happened to a black family?”

“#NotAllMen” Translation: “I’m doing my part, so please stop attacking me.”

To readers of color (and all who find yourselves offended): Please forgive them. These people haven’t yet awakened to the reality that there are still racists among them. Racist people know their opinions are unpopular right now. They hide, they wait until nobody’s watching, or until they can spin their racist agenda as some other social or political issue. They gather people around themselves who share their ideals, secretly, until they reach such a critical mass that they’re no longer afraid to reveal their racism for what it is.

At that point it’s easy for those of the majority who disagree to stand back, distance themselves from the perpetrators. Before that, it’s like a black finger pointing at a sea of white faces, crying “There! There’s the racist!” The crowd says, “Is he pointing at me? At my friend? How could he say that about us?” While the racist, smug and secure in his anonymity, feigns indignation. When the count comes back, no one revealing himself, the crowd is convinced that the accuser was mistaken.

It gets easier to believe there’s a problem when the finger of accusation belongs to a member of the majority. People and organizations get called out for this, but there’s a psychological effect, a credibility that comes when the person accusing you has stepped out from among your own circle to turn around and point that finger. Why? Because in stepping forward, that person is claiming partial responsibility for the presence of that racist in their midst. They’re saying, “I knew he was there, but I didn’t speak until now,” or “I didn’t notice him before, but there he is.” That’s when the members of that majority are more likely to turn inward with self-examination and ask, “Is it me?”

This isn’t always the case, of course. Majority members still have their witness discounted as incredible–it happens to me all the time. What’s to be done, when you’re a member of the majority pointing that finger, but still nobody listens?

Before, I mentioned critical mass. Maybe one finger isn’t enough. But the more we join together, signal boosting and calling people out when they cross the line, the fewer faces that pretender has to hide behind.

Last night I read an impassioned article from a woman of color who works in a professional environment. She expressed a keen and constant awareness of the color of her skin–not only that she was different, but that she was representative of everyone different, even those who didn’t identify as the same minority. It’s a constant problem in a nation where we aren’t really as integrated as we think we are.

This works both ways–when you’re the majority and accusations of racism are flying, you’re hyper-aware of any interactions you have with that oppressed minority. Do you say hi to the black-as-black stranger in the grocery store, to show that you’re not racist? Or is he tired of the constant reminders that he’s different, and would silence be the better option? Omigosh, he’s standing behind me. Does my body language make it seem like I’m trying to pretend he isn’t there?

One thing we often forget, even when championing the cause of equality, is that we’re all human–by which I mean we all make the same mistakes. We all have the same fears. The hyper-awareness, the feeling that everyone’s watching–we all get that at some point. We also get the reverse, when it feels like you’re just a color, invisible in a sea of faces that look just like yours, afraid that your individual voice won’t be heard. Some of us experience one more than the other, but we can and should relate with those who feel the opposite. We often forget, put up this dividing line that says, “They don’t understand what it’s like to be me,” when what we should be saying is, “What can I do to understand what it’s like for them?”

Cross that line. If you’re white, consider how it feels to have your deepest concerns brushed away as unimportant. Understand that there are parts of this country where black people fear for their lives whenever they walk out their front door. Where those who can pass as white do, and are ashamed to identify with their cultural heritage. Recognize that our criminal justice system incarcerates an obscenely skewed proportion of African-American citizens, breaking up families and propagating any real or imagined social problems which exist within their neighborhoods. Most importantly, realize that bias exists, naturally and artificially created, and that it takes awareness and education to rid ourselves of it.

If you identify as a person of color, you need to cross over that line as well, and not make it thicker. Hashtags like #WhitePeopleBeLike only serve to alienate those who are trying to see things from your perspective. Annual reminders that George Washington or Christopher Columbus owned slaves in an era when it was not considered morally reprehensible to do so–even in the enslaved cultures themselves–are not helping. Neither are accusations that someone’s ancestors were murderers and rapists when there’s nothing they can do about it if they were, and the majority of them probably weren’t.

We’re on the same side here. We all want things to be equal and fair, but we sometimes forget that we can grant equality and fairness to others without losing hold of it ourselves. You can share someone else’s opinion without danger that yours is less likely to be heard. Be less quick to cry ‘cultural appropriation!’ and more willing to be grateful for the ways in which other cultures have benefited your own.

And above all, listen.

Jun 16 2015

I’m on Patreon

Patreon

You may have noticed a few recent changes to the blog. First off, I’ve finally added a little preview of Quetzalcoatl, a novel(la?) about the crew and passengers of an interstellar cruise ship which runs into an alien craft on its way to the colony world of Alphenor. Second and most exciting, I’ve made a Patreon account.

“What’s Patreon?” you may wonder. It’s a place where you can show your support for artists, authors, and game creators by pledging money in exchange for access to exclusive content and unique rewards. Here’s a quick breakdown for those who are interested.

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Patrons who pledge $1/month will get early access to content, including sneak peeks and extra chapters of all my works-in-progress. There will be short stories which take place in between novels, and deleted/alternate versions of scenes from published works.

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Patrons pledging $3/month or more will get everything the $1 patrons do, with the added privilege of voting on project decisions; when I’m hesitating between two endings or want input on which project I should focus on next, YOU will get to decide.

Reward-5.pngIf you’re willing to part with $5/month or more, your name will go into a pool which I will draw from every time I need a name for a new character. You’ll get everything the lower tiers do, of course, and whenever I draw from this pool, I’ll make an announcement so you know when your name has been chosen.

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For extra-generous donors, I have an extra special reward; a guaranteed character slot in one of my upcoming novels. These are limited based on the number of named characters I have in the novel, but are more likely to be speaking roles than those in the $3 name pool. Donors at this level will either have their full name used for a character, OR their physical persona (and possibly quirks) used to flesh out the character. I have 10 guaranteed slots each for Silas and Quetzalcoatl, and a full 30 for Pegasus Chained.

So if you like what you’ve been seeing here, or just want to support me in my endeavors, click on over to my Patreon page and take a look. Thanks for your support!

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May 30 2015

JuNoWriMo 2015

JuNoWriMoThree years ago, I did something amazing. This year, I’ll attempt to do it again.

Many of you have heard of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short), where you write 50,000 words in the month of November. But did you know there’s a similar challenge in June? My first attempt at writing a novel in 30 days was actually JuNoWriMo, though I’ve done it in November too, back in 2013. It was 30 crazy days of writing, throwing words on the paper without looking back.

Since then I’ve always approached the first draft of something in the same way. It really is refreshing to just write, without second-guessing your choices or stopping to edit. As they say, the first draft doesn’t have to be good; it just has to be written. Don’t think you can do it? Neither did I, but I took the chance, put my name in the hat, and came out a winner.

This year I’m not starting from scratch (which I don’t recommend; a fresh project is always easier to just throw onto the page), but instead expanding the 12,000 word first draft of Quetzalcoatl I ground out in about 2 days (phew!) of intense writing. I might not be able to keep up the ~2,000 word pace on a rewrite, but if I fall behind, I have a few other plot bunnies I can pound out to make up the difference.

So, who’s with me?

May 23 2015

Write That Prologue

Prologue - Dragonmount: The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory...We hear it all the time.

“Agents hate prologues.”

“My editor cut the prologue.”

“I always skip prologues; they’re boring.”

“I never made it through the prologue.”

Some people consider them the kiss of death; others don’t go so far, but when you speak the word their lips bend into a frown, and they begin a lengthy explanation of why writing a prologue for your novel is a Bad Idea.

I’m going to tell you why they’re wrong.

First and foremost, never let someone else tell you what you can and cannot write. The only way to become a good writer is to practice writing. Whether you get that practice as part of an English degree or while scribbling fanfiction on your lunch break, every word you write is progress. The only time you’re not improving as a writer is when you’re staring at a blank page, afraid to put words onto it.

Rant over; back to the topic. Why should you write that prologue? Because you need to. You, the writer, need to get it out of your brain and onto the page. Once it’s there you can inspect it, play with it, and search for the value in it. Like panning for gold, you may find only a few precious nuggets among the sand and gravel, but you’re still a few nuggets richer than you were before. Or you may discover an entire scene which, while it may or may not end up at the forefront of your novel, might fit in better elsewhere, maybe in an entirely different book.

Let’s consider each type of prologue, and the value each one has to offer by writing it.

1: The Infodump
This is by far the most vilified (and most frequently skipped) of all prologue types. It’s easy to see why; with few exceptions, nobody likes a history lesson. They’re dry and boring and can’t we just get on with the action? I’m never going to remember that the Evil King of the Distant Empire kidnapped the Raven Princess with the help of the Wizard Potentate and was slain by the Helmed Hero with the Sword of Might after a Great War that destroyed the Lost Kingdom, unless I have some context to put it in.

The infodump is rarely a good place to start a novel. But in my experience, it’s one of the easiest places to mine for story. Write it out. DO IT. Then go through with a red pen and circle every key piece of information that your reader needs to know in order to understand what’s going on. This becomes your Foreshadowing Checklist.

Now, work the important details into the story, making sure that you mention each point well in advance (I prefer a chapter or more ahead) of where it becomes relevant, but in a place where the context can hook that fact in the reader’s mind. Let Penny Protagonist compare her romantic rival to the Raven Princess, whose beauty caused a war between the Lost Kingdom and the Distant Empire. Have the village boys argue over who will play the Evil King and who gets to wear the Hero’s Helmet. Make them sweat when their routine is interrupted by a visitor from the Wizard Potentate. You may or may not mention the Sword of Might when Penny finds the rusty old falchion in her uncle’s attic, but you certainly need to make sure you do it before she awakens the weapon’s full power. Now that these ideas are fixed in the reader’s mind, your wizard can unveil the history to convince Penny that she is the Child of Destiny. You might even get to reuse some of that prose you wrote!

2: Character Backstory
Your readers might not need to know from page one that Penny Protagonist lost her parents in an avalanche while fleeing the Distant Empire, but you, the writer, do need to know it. It is perfectly acceptable to write this scene out, because you might learn some important details about the incident that you wouldn’t have considered before you wrote it.

In addition to character backstory sketches, I often write a scene from two different perspectives before deciding which is the best to use in the final version. I have one scene in particular that I rewrote three separate times–I ended up still using the original perspective character for the final version, but doing the other two perspectives taught me vital things about the other characters in the scene, and made it stronger in the end.

The important thing to take away from this is, you shouldn’t be afraid to write a scene that you know won’t be part of the finished draft. Let your characters teach you about themselves–and then use what you’ve learned to make the story stronger.

3: The Flashback
Closely related to the Character Backstory prologue, the Flashback delves into history, often for the purpose of hooking the reader with action which may or may not be related to the main plot. While your editor will most likely axe this if you forget to take it out, there’s no reason not to hone your skill by writing it, and just as many opportunities to learn about your setting. (And just think; if you ever become really famous, some editor might take all your little deleted scenes and publish them anyway.)

One of the easiest ways to write yourself out of a plot hole is to take little pieces of your world and just freewrite about it. Your characters have history, but you’re not sure exactly what happened? Jot it down, hammer it out. It’s still a part of your novel, even if the reader only ever sees the distilled version of it. And if you write something that truly has nothing to do with the story you’re working on? Well, maybe that idea needs a novel of its own.


Have you ever written something for your own benefit, knowing it wouldn’t be part of the finished version?

May 19 2015

Projects

Having my (and my husband’s) blog hacked was not exactly a pleasant experience, but it gave me an excuse to restructure the site in some fun ways. I’ll take any opportunity to throw together some pretty graphics or tweak a new WordPress theme; I even learned a few new things while digging into my website’s back end to make sure we’d closed off all our vulnerabilities.

The first of the front end changes is my content sidebar on the left there. Going forward, each of my projects will have its own page, a sort of hub for progress notes and samples for people to read. (Some of these are up already, but new things are shortly to come.) My work-in-progress posts will have a new format, and I’m still working on ideas for a writing advice section; probably not as comprehensive as those some of my friends on Twitter run, just little things that occur to me during the writing process.

The second major change is that I’d like to start blogrolling some of my fellow authors in that sidebar space, especially those whose input and advice have helped me along the way. If you’ve got a writing blog and want in, simply find me on Twitter or Facebook (links at the top of the page) and drop me a line.

May 14 2015

Rebuilding

Hey, guys. Someone hacked my site a while back (apparently) and I can’t trust any of my backups. Most of my old content will be back up soon; until then, you can follow me at @AlbrightWrites on Twitter, or check out my Facebook author page.