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When Failure is a Good Thing

Published October 30, 2016 by nruhwald

writeTo begin with, let me explain what I mean by “failure.” I’ll spare you the dictionary definition, we all know what the word means. But by failure, I’m talking about anything that didn’t go the way you wanted it to.

For writers, this could mean rejection by an agent, a bad review, a harsh critique, or poor sales or blog statistics.

For many of us, it’s very difficult to think of failure as anything other than an abysmal reflection on our efforts. It probably starts in school. Even in subjects where technically there is no wrong or right answer, for grading purposes, some answers are better than others. You either gain or loose marks, and that is it. Gained marks are good, lost marks are bad.

The world outside of school is a bit more nuanced.

Sometimes it’s not you

How people react to what you put out there, be it writing or anything else, is as much about them as it is about you. Oddly enough, I learned that playing an online rpg. Some of the characters thought I was fantastic, while others hated me.

Obviously, it was all preprogrammed. I could only complete the quests. What the characters said or did as a result had nothing to do with me.

It may have been just a game, but it translates into the real world. Just as the characters in the game had preprogramed responses, people you meet come with their own set of likes and dislikes. If someone doesn’t like what you wrote, it could just be that you queried the wrong agent, or for some reason attracted the wrong audience.

Whether you “succeed” or not sometimes doesn’t have much to do with how well you do it. This is one of the most frustrating aspects of the writing world. But this fact doesn’t let you off the hook.

If the bad result isn’t your fault, you have to try something different. Find out where your audience really is. Find the right agent.

Sometimes it is you

But this isn’t a bad thing either. You have simply discovered a problem that needs to be solved. Finding out you write query letters badly, for example, isn’t objectively worse than finding out you queried the wrong agent. It feels worse, I won’t deny that.

But it doesn’t mean that you are doomed, or that you’re a bad writer (or a bad whatever-you’re-trying-to-be). All that’s needed is a bit of learning and practice. Possibly a lot, but that’s okay.

Mistakes are good. They help you learn.

Failure sucks. Sometimes a lot. There are numerous, rather common, experiences in writing that easily elicit in emotional crisis. You’re entitled to feel awful when this happens. But when the storm is over, remember that you’ve just discovered an opportunity.

Learn from your mistakes. Success is great but it seldom teaches you anything.

 

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Writing Weirdness

Published October 23, 2016 by nruhwald

book-read-relax-lilacI apologize for missing last week. It’s midterm week at the ‘ol tech school.

Given that writing a blog post is not necessarily a great drain on time you wouldn’t think it being midterm week would mess up my blogging schedule so much.

But hey, look at that. It did.

Without further ado, I’d like to talk about writing weirdness. Not writing weird things, but the weird things going on in the writing world.

Specifically, something I keep hearing people say. Usually something like: “I don’t use my writing to express my viewpoint,” or “nobody likes to be preached at” etc.

The thought pattern behind this, I suppose, is: writers should avoid putting their personal opinions into their writing because people do not like encountering viewpoints contrary to their own, and heaven forbid anyone should mistakenly think the person with an opinion is “judgy.”

By the fact that I’m bringing this up, one could assume that I don’t agree with this kind of thinking. It’s not so much that I don’t agree. I just think people who say this are missing something rather obvious.

We are all unique. Our opinions and worldviews are as unique as our fingerprint. This is why nobody ever writes the same story. We all know this.

Then why would anybody think that at least part of what they believe and how they see the world is not evident in their writing?

Whether a writer makes a point of discussing something in a novel is irrelevant. Who they are will show up in what kinds of characters they create, and what kinds of stories they tell. It’s not a bad thing.

How you view the world and what kind of experiences you’ve have will shape your idea of what a lousy person looks like. Your choices of antagonists will reflect that. Likewise for your protagonists.

Your opinions are going to be in your story anyway. Other people may not notice. Some of them will.

Sometimes I like to read through another writer’s work, published or otherwise, and make guesses about what they believe from that. And then find out more about them from their profiles and bio’s and such to see if I was right. (Saying this just to prove a point, not to brag,) but I’m right about 90% of the time. I can spot a fellow Christian from a hundred yards.

People who can write convincingly from another perspective are rare. I can also tell if a writer chooses to have religious characters, (because, you know, most people do believe in something) but are not religious themselves.

Okay, I guess it’s obvious I don’t agree with the kind of thinking that says you shouldn’t put what you believe in your writing. I think it’s silly, because what you believe is in there anyway. (Especially when people say they don’t put their beliefs in writing and then advocate for diversity in writing. Isn’t diversity all about different world views and experiences? How do you keep opinions out of that?)

It’s okay to have an opinion and put it somewhere where people might see it. All else being equal, a well-crafted story with someone’s opinions in it is still a good story.

People are too scared of opinions other than their own these days. Knowing this, it’s tempting to pack our own away. But wouldn’t it be better to learn to express our views and receive other people’s views in a non-combative way?

 

We are Peculiar People

Published September 25, 2016 by nruhwald

pretendI don’t normally participate in the daily prompt, I prefer to write about what I planned to write about. I suppose one could tailor the post to fit, but that seems so contrived somehow.

Fortunately, this week I didn’t really know what I wanted to write about. Fortunately, daily prompt came to my rescue. This prompt is perfect because so much of my life has been about pretending.

As a child I spent much of my time in a pretend world, I suppose that’s why writing novels, especially fantasy, came so naturally. Not the technique of writing a novel properly, but the creative process.

Even now, I may not be daydreaming all the time (though I often am), but much of my life is pretend. I pretend I know what people mean. I pretend I didn’t hear what someone said across the hall from me. I pretend I really want to write a blog post on the one day I reserve as a homework-free zone. I pretend I’m absorbed with whatever I’m listening to on my Ipod, and not listening and watching out of the corner of my eye.

That may sound a bit creepy, but we writers are observers. How can we replicate life if we do not observe it?

Besides, as Patrick Hood is fond of pointing out “it’s not eavesdropping if I can’t help it.”

It is only in observing other people that we realize that everyone is pretending. Pretending they’re really listening, pretending to pay attention in class, pretending everything’s okay. Sometimes, you also find out they’ve been watching you, too.

Pretending is necessary to the writer’s craft. Writers must know how to pretend, or else I suppose just write non-fiction.

But everyone pretends. Everyone sees that other people are pretending, at least if they care enough to look.

We are peculiar people.

via Daily Prompt: Pretend

Meet Winnowna

Published September 4, 2016 by nruhwald

Hello everyone. This month I would like to introduce you to my female protagonist, Princess Winnowna Illusia, who I’ve recently discovered whilst doing research for my post on plot points is actually my MC. Originally I had written her as a supporting sub-MC to Patrick Hood, but what do you know? Characters do what they want.

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“What is this?” Matilda said severely. “The princess will be announced at any moment.”

Princess Winnowna winced at yet another tug on her hair, trying to catch a glimpse of Matilda through the swarm of maids hovering around her like bees tending to their queen. “It is the collar. Ouch. It keeps catching my curls.”

The maids worked quickly, disentangling the raven locks dangling from Winnowna’s intricate hairstyle, all the while leaning over the voluminous skirt of her dress to avoid marring the jewel-studded silk.

The magnificent costume was her duty to wear, but Winnowna feared she would never be equal to it. The gown seemed to swallow her whole, while the collar snatched at her hair like a pack of malicious pixies.

Winnowna forced a smile when the last curl was free of the ornate metal collar rising up from the shoulders of her gown. “There. Is my tiara straight?”

Matilda tilted her head, studying the ornament. “Yes, Your Highness.”

The trumpets blasted outside, and the herald’s voice echoed in the courtyard. “Her Royal Highness, Princess Winnowna Illusia of the Kingdom of North Caladavan.”

The princess stiffened, but raised her chin and prepared to walk out onto the balcony. Soon the memorial ceremony would be over, and she could again try to pretend the sacrifices never happened.

Matilda hurried behind Winnowna and took up her train. Winnowna walked through the gauzy curtains onto the balcony, followed by Matilda and the rest of her courtiers. The crowd in the courtyard below shouted and cheered.

Winnowna smiled and waved to her people. Matilda settled the train on the smooth marble balcony and took her place at Winnowna’s side.

“Goodness,” said Winnowna. “One would almost think they were pleased to see me.”

“Your people love you, Highness,” said Matilda.

Winnowna looked up at the adjacent balcony, where her father and mother stood in attire yet more regal and extravagant than her own. A rare sight, to see them together. In all her life the king and queen had not spent more than a few days per year in each other’s company.

A somber hush fell over the crowd as the dracona majora, chief sorcerer of the Inner Circle, ascended to the top of the podium in the courtyard below, flanked by two acolytes.

Winnowna’s fingernails dug into her palms. The dark-clad figures of the Inner Circle haunted her gilded youth and childhood, an ever-present reminder of the sacrifices plaguing her land, and of the possibility that her turn might one day come.

Sometimes she dreamed of banishing them all when she became queen, but she knew better. The Inner Circle held great power, given to them by the Great Dragon and its servants. No one dared cross them in all of Caladavan’s history, nor was such a thing likely ever to happen. Winnowna did not pray to the Great Dragon as some did, but she knew its power was inexorable.

“People of Caladavan,” the dracona majora’s voice echoed in the crisp autumn air. “Today we gather to remember our lost royalty. The blood-children, sent by the will of the Great Dragon into the terrible waters of the gulf, and there murdered by the monstrous strangeling Captain Harbinger.”

Strangelings, part human and part faerie, were another of Caladavan’s plagues. Fortunately there were but few of them on the mainland now, though there were monsters and full-blooded faeries enough to make up for it.

The dracona majora continued, “On this day, as we remember the blood-children, it is perhaps fitting that I announce one more to be added to their number.”

An uneasy murmur arose from the crowd.

Winnowna let out a slow breath through her teeth. The last two blood-children had been from North Caladavan. Surely it must be time for someone from South Caladavan to be chosen.

“I announce with deep regret, Princess Winnowna Illusia shall have the honour of serving the Great Dragon as the blood-child.”

She grasped the balcony rail. Her blood seemed to evaporate from her body, leaving her cold and hollow. She did not know whether the shriek rending the air came from her own throat or her mother’s.

The crowd’s murmur grew into a roar of anger. The palace guards rushed in to beat back the angry people and usher the dracona majora and his acolytes to safety.

None of this was real, it couldn’t be. She was going to vomit.

Winnowna pressed cold lips together and swallowed hard. She turned and ran back inside, shrieking, “Libby! Get me out of this. Matilda, help me get this thing off.” Winnowna began pulling at her elaborate hairpiece. “Libby, where are you?”

Libby scuttled forth out of the lounge adjoining Winnowna’s dressing parlour. The lady dressed identically to Winnowna. She served as an emergency stand-in for events in which Winnowna was not expected to interact closely with the crowd. In this case, Winnowna had a different purpose in mind for Libby.

The maids worked in a frenzy. Off came the velvet sash, the cape, the jeweled netting from her skirt, the heavy metal collar. Doubtless they did not understand why Winnowna demanded they undress her, but they soon would.

“Libby, once I am gone I want you to run about the palace screaming. The rest of you must pretend to protect her. The guard shall realize their mistake as soon as they catch you, but keep away from them for as long as you can,” said Winnowna. “Matilda, if you would give me the loan of your plainest dress and a cloak.”

“But Your Highness.”

“We discussed this.”

“It was a game. This was never supposed to happen.”

“It is not a game now.”

 

Writing Fundamentals: Plot Points

Published August 28, 2016 by nruhwald

Plot-PointsWhat is a plot point?

Like scenes and the four stages of a novel (inciting incident, rising action, climax, and ending), plot points are another structural element of your story which you’ll need to keep track of.

For the writer, plot points are destinations. We write with the purpose of moving the characters towards the plot point. For the character, however, the plot point is a beginning.

A plot point happens when a character makes a decision which sets the story going in a new direction.

In questing stories, often in fantasy genres, plot points are linked to physical locations. In the Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring, most plot points occur when Frodo decides to go somewhere, and he often adds or subtracts people from his group at this point as well.

  • Frodo begins the quest when he decides to take the ring and meet Gandalf at the Prancing Pony in Bree. (Adds Sam, Pippin, and Merry)
  • Frodo decides to go to Rivendell. (Adds Strider)
  • Frodo decides to take the ring to Mordor. (Adds Legolas, Gimli, Boromir, and finally meets up with Gandalf.)
  • Frodo decides to…

You get the point already.

Plot points are also a useful way of determining who your main character is. If you struggle with this question, try mapping the events of the story, and identify which events change the course of the story. Your main character is the person whose actions cause those changes.

The actions of antagonists and other characters happen between plot points and serve to push the main character into making her (or his) decision, but it will always be the main character who causes the story to change.

The Plot Point is Not…

…necessarily super dramatic

It all depends on the novel you’re writing. If the novel you’re writing is about the MC’s relationship between people and not a life and death situation, the plot point could be quite subtle.

I once read a book where the plot centered around a woman trying to gain self-confidence. In this type of book, a plot point could be as simple as a decision to take a self-defence course, or a decision not to attend an event.

The plot point has to be a big deal to the character, and must set the book on a new course. But it doesn’t have to be as dramatic as a character leaving a spouse, or taking a new job. That big of a move may very well be reserved for the climax.

…ever ever ever caused by something other than the previous events of the story.

I will talk about this more later on, so I’ll just touch on it now. It has to be the previous events of the story which push the main character into making the decision.

Otherwise, you don’t have a plot point, you have a plot ticket. Plot tickets are to plot points what an ex machina is to the climax. You don’t want a plot ticket.

…laid out neatly like a road map for the character to follow near the beginning of the book.

This is another kind of plot ticket, but this kind is worse because no changes are even being made to the course of the story. I have watched some movies in which the MC was told “you need to get these special items in order to defeat the bad guy. You will find them here, here and here. Off you go.”

I do not like those movies. Sometimes the sub-villians at each of the destinations are interesting enough to keep me watching, but they are never interesting enough to make me think of watching it again without groaning. The story still feels too amateurish.

Normally, these movies are intended for young children who do not know better. This sort of storytelling is marginally acceptable in videogames, but never in novels.

The plot point has to change the course of the novel. Ergo, the MC has to make a decision to do something s/he was not previously planning to do. The story takes a new direction, it does not simply move into the next phase of an already decided-upon plan.

…a complete shock to the reader

While the plot point is a complete change in the story’s direction, there are already forces at work pushing the character into taking the story in that new direction.

For instance, when Frodo reached Rivendell, he wasn’t planning on taking the ring any farther. However, the reader likely realizes that Frodo’s story doesn’t end at Rivendell, and might well have predicted that Frodo’s quest with the ring would continue all the way to Mordor.

 

Planners vs. Pantsers

Do you need to know what all your plot points are going to be in advance?

Short answer: no.

It is widely recognized that there are two generally categories of writers. Those who prefer to plan everything out in advance before they write, and those who do not. I’ve never truly considered myself a “pantser” (one who writes by the seat of her/his pants), because I do quite a bit of planning.

On the other hand, I can list off the top of my head, the plot points I have already written in my current WIP, and the plot point I am writing towards. I also know generally how my climax and ending are going to work. As for the rest of the plot points, I don’t have a clue. That’s not quite true, I do have a clue. But not much else.

I don’t really know how my characters are going to react when I reach my next plot point until I’m actually in the moment, so speculating on the effects of my MC’s next big decision seems like a waste of time. This is probably also why I always write chronologically.

Either way works, but for those of you of the pantser persuasion, I believe you should always write towards a plot point. This will keep your plot on track and driven by your MC.

Cousins of the Plot Point

The Inciting Incident

The inciting incident is the event that sends your character’s life in a new direction. So, in theory the inciting incident could also be considered a plot point. But it need not be, and most usually aren’t.

Unlike your climax and the inciting incident, this is the one time in your novel when something major happens which does not need to be directly caused by your MC. That said, if your inciting incident is not caused by your MC, the inciting incident will soon be followed by a plot point in which your MC decides what course to take based on the inciting incident.

Returning to the Fellowship of the Ring, the inciting incident in this story is Bilbo’s decision to run off to Rivendell and leave Frodo the ring. Soon afterwards, we have the plot point in which Frodo decides what he’s going to do about it.

However, the inciting incident can be driven by a decision made by your main character, thus making it a kind of plot point. In the newest Star Wars movie, the inciting incident is actually a decision made by one of the characters to leave his previous life. Just in case someone out there has not watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens yet, I won’t go into any more detail.

The Dreaded Plot Ticket

Also sometimes called a plot cookie, you should avoid the plot ticket like the plague.

The plot ticket happens when a change in plot direction occurs, but it is not driven by a decision made by the MC and/or the decision is not driven by previous story events.

For instance, imagine how odd it would have been if Frodo had decided to take the ring and run off to Mordor on his own (with Sam) straight from the Prancing Pony. Weird, right? Why would Frodo do that? How does Frodo even know what he’s supposed to do with the ring? (In most plot ticket blunders, some random thing happens which lets the MC know what s/he is supposed to do. The MC gets handed a “plot ticket” essentially.)

There’s no good reason for Frodo to choose to go anywhere by himself especially given how dangerous his situation is. And beyond that, we don’t want Frodo to leave. We just got introduced to an interesting new character (Strider), and we want to find out what happened to Gandalf.

Now, fast forward, and Frodo has just seen Gandalf “die” and witnessed the destructive effect of the ring on Boromir. The fellowship of the ring is falling apart already, and Frodo doesn’t want the ring or his quest to do any more damage to his friends. So he chooses to go alone (with Sam.)

See how much more effective the plot point is when it’s driven by previous events?

 

The Plot Twist

Plot twists are very effective. I love plot twists. In fact, one of my pet peeves is reading the first chapter and being able to accurately predict the entire plot of the book (*cough* romance novels *cough*). I like surprises.

However, plot twists are not plot points. They may radically change something, but they cannot directly change the course of the novel. Plot twists come out of the blue (with foreshadowing), and plot points do not. Instead, plot twists work very well as one of those events which push the MC into making a decision which completely changes the course of the book, thus creating a plot point.

For instance, Luke Skywalker’s fight with Darth Vader would have ended the way it did whether or not he learned that Darth Vader is his father. Either way, Luke loses the fight and has to get picked up by his friends. At the time, the only thing this really changes is Luke’s mental state. Instead of being disappointed that he failed to kill Darth Vader (and relieved that he survived the fight), Luke is having a massive personal crisis.

However, this emotional trauma dramatically effects the decisions, and thus plot points, Luke makes later on.

 

 

Pick up Your Pen and Write

Published June 20, 2016 by nruhwald

writer-1421099_1280Excuses

Sometimes I don’t feel like it.

I have a headache.

I’m not feeling well.

I don’t know, I’m just in a slump.

I just don’t feel as wonderfully creative as I did yesterday when I wrote practically all day and cranked out over 2000 words.

So do it anyway. Because, just do it.

One might say this is part two of an earlier post I wrote entitled Why I Don’t Want to be a Serious Writer. I still feel the same way, I think.

I don’t want try to be someone I can’t be yet. I just want to be…a novelist.

I like that word, okay?

Since then, I haven’t changed much. Mainly I think I just obsess less about the things I should be doing that I can’t do.

Even so, never let that be an excuse to “not feel like it.” That applies to blog writing (etc) as much as it does to my other work. Sometimes I don’t feel like putting in the two posts a week, or trying to connect with a million strangers in the hopes that someone will care when I am eventually able to self-pub my debut novel.

Sometimes…I just have to suck it up and use it as inspiration for the blog post I was supposed to write yesterday.

Get Past It

We all struggle with motivation from time to time, so in the second half of this post, let me share with you how I escape the doldrums and move back into the trade winds of productivity.

First of all, you won’t always “feel like it.” At least not until you start doing it. I often find I get into a mini-slump after a really, really good day of writing. That’s because I contrast how creative I felt at the time with how I feel after a relatively long break (a night’s sleep, lets say).

But I didn’t start that creative day feeling like that. I still had to get into it, and then yes, the creative juices got going and practically nothing could knock me out of it.

Don’t tell my profs, but I’ve written straight through some classes riding a creative high. Sometimes I wonder, though. I’m not really a note-taker, and then they see me studiously writing away. And what about the quotation marks and the big paragraphs and the lack of bullet points? Can they see that? Do they know? But I digress.

To get into the creative mindset, I usually start by thinking about what it is I have to do while doing something else. I may type up what I last wrote, or do some light editing. Or read what I wrote last and then go play some computer games, so I can think about it for a bit.

Sometimes this works, and sometimes I get tired afterwards and just go to sleep. Usually this just means I have to stop watching TV and go write earlier, but sometimes I means I gave up. Don’t give up. Just do it.

That sentence. In your head. Write it down. Even if you’re not feeling it. Pick up your pen, and write it down. Even if you don’t have a sentence in your head. Pick up the pen. A sentence will come to you if you stare at the page long enough.

It’s taken me as long as half an hour. Or more, I don’t really pay attention. But I find typing up or reading what I wrote last can shorten this time. It gets my head into my story.

How do you stay motivated?

Why I Don’t Want to be a Serious Writer

Published June 12, 2016 by nruhwald

Since I’ve been looking into this self-publishing business, I’ve discovered all the things I should be doing to promote my work and myself. The blog, the social media, the “sales funnel.”

In order to succeed at blogging, I have to start getting into photography to produce pretty pictures for my blog. Oh and I have to become a graphic designer to make those pretty pictures prettier. And I have to become a marketing expert to learn how to make proper ads, and take courses. And I need a website. And I have to be serious and treat it like a business. And and and and…

Ugh. Make it stop. Please.

Since when did being a writer become about something other than writing? Except of course, in those incredibly intimidating statements that read something like “unless you have perfect content, nothing you do is going to go anywhere.”

I am a bit of a perfectionist. I want to do what I do well, and I’d like to be recognized for it. But at some point I’ve had to rethink what it is I really want, and stop freaking out about everything.

I write because I enjoy it. I’ve been doing that since grade 3 with only my own satisfaction and the support of my family as a reward. I like making up stories. My characters are cool people, and I like hanging out with them. That’s really why I write.

What if I never become a full-time writer? Would the world end? Would that mean I gave up?

I still want to be a full-time writer. And I still may do all the things I mentioned in the first two paragraphs of this post. But I’ve decided that what I really want is to enjoy the journey, without fretting about where I’m going to end up.

I’m not even bothering to find a pretty picture for this blog post. Hah. Take that, lords of blogging. You don’t own me.

Obviously, I’m still going to write. I may even stay on Twitter. But I’m not going to be serious. Not necessarily flippant either, but not serious. Being serious is no fun.

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