Ask the Author Extravaganza!

Ask the Author Extravaganza!


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Firsts in Fiction

Year-End Ask the Author Extravaganza!

Hey all! Welcome back! In honor of our final episode this year, we’ve chosen to do an “Ask the Author” extravaganza encompassing each of the remaining “Ask the Author” questions from this year. In addition, we’ll be throwing some questions at each other. We’ll also chat a bit about our plans for next year, which should be very informative and fun!

NEXT YEAR: We’re excited about our format for next year. We’ll begin the year with a look at writer psychology, and then move through the anatomy of a novel. Though we’ve moved chronologically through the elements of a novel before, this will be a great jumping-on point for new listeners, a good refresher for long-time listeners, and completely new to those of you who have only been listening for a year or so. Once we’re done with that, we’ll take a deeper look at the elements of a novel and really roll up our sleeves getting to the nitty gritty of each element. One of the things I’m more excited for, though, is the space we’ve allowed for viewer submitted topics. So if you’ve got a topic idea, make sure you send it in. We’ll make time to go over as many as we can.

Now, onto the show. We’ve got three questions left from Ask the Author, so we’ll go over those, maybe field a few questions from the chat room, and then maybe toss a few questions at each other just for fun.

QUESTION: How do you capture essence of setting & not lose integrity or strength of story & background?
AARON: I’m not sure I understand the question. The more you develop setting, the more you strengthen your story. If you’re concerned about slowing the pace of the novel because you’re going into too much detail, you may want to pull back a bit. The key is to give one or two appropriate, meaningful details that will help establish the tone of the scene and/or further deepen your character etc.

I’d also add that it’s super important to do your research on your setting (if you’re writing about a real place). Try to get the details right. It can really help to ground a story.

Al: Several things. First, remember that purpose of fiction: To take a reader on a journey from the beginning to the end of some adventure and make the whole thing interesting and memorable. Second, remember that the reader must be shown setting, people, and events but not be shown unnecessary detail. Setting provides a backdrop for the actors and can be a character all its own. Third, details are needed. Fourth, too much detail can kill a story. Readers will wonder why you’re going on about the oil stains on the floor of an aircraft hanger if those stains are clues.

Describe setting in rich detail, but just enough to make the reader see and feel the place. Give them a drink of water, but don’t drown them with a tsunami of detail.

The setting serves your story and your characters. Your story and characters do not serve the setting.

Resist the urge to show off all the details you’ve learned.

MOLLY: I’m with Aaron and not sure I understand the question. If I interpret it correctly, it sounds as if maybe you’re focusing too much on setting and not enough on story. It’s a healthy balance, just like dialogue vs. action. There’s a give and take, a teeter-totter, if you will, where both need to work together to make a great story. For each scene, you needn’t spell out how many flowers are in the garden, but rather just state there’s a flower garden. Tell us where your characters are, then get to what’s driving them. The setting is only important insofar as it gives us an environment in which the story takes place.

QUESTION: What do you do when your story, characters, scenery lock you out & yet won’t leave you alone? They bug & nag but still insist on locking you out? How do you beat the frustration & write the story you know you need to write?

AARON: This sounds like the classic case of writer’s block to me. You’re stuck in the story and don’t know where to go. There are a couple ways to handle it in my opinion. The first is to take a step back. Take a break from writing. See a movie. Watch a show. Read a book. Make a meal. Anything to take your mind off the story. Sometimes we can think about something so hard and so long we end up losing sight of the forest for the trees, if you’ll pardon the cliche.

The other way to handle it is to power through. Keep writing. Understand that it may not be good, but it will be writing. Sometimes the simple act of putting words on page will unlock the answer. Of course, if your story is bogging down in the middle, you can always blow something up. Increase the stakes, the conflict, the tension.

One thing we mentioned last time was the management of resources. Take resources away from your character (that will complicate the plot) or give them new resources they did not have before (in a believable way–this will help solve tricky situations). You can always go back and find a justifiable way to get your character exactly what they need to have in a pivotal moment.

Al: Okay, I’m gonna put on my grumpy old man hat. Bear with me. This is something struggling writers often say. They hit a rough patch in their writing and blame the characters. Forgive me, but there’s no such thing as a character locking a writer out. The character is a creative creation, the result of neurons firing in the writer’s brain. Characters don’t make writers do things; writers make characters do things.

Writing is tough and at times may seem impossible to carry on. We look for a way out, a way to step away from the computer and watch some television. What’s bugging and nagging the writer is his or her conscience.

Mt. Everest is 29,029 feet above sea level. Every year, people die climbing that mountain. No one, to my knowledge, has ever made the ascent in a single climb. There were periods of rest and re-evaluation. Writing is the same way, especially novels. Almost every novelist has to stop, reassess, then move forward.

When Armstrong, Collins, Aldrin traveled to the Moon, they had to make countless midcourse corrections. They left a moving base to travel to a moving target, and that requires fine tuning the journey. Writing a novel is the same thing. The characters will do what you tell them. Show ‘em who’s boss.

MOLLY: Power through. Al’s right on this, the characters can’t really make you do or not do something. If you’re stuck with writer’s block it could be that you are having trouble with a scene or trying to make something happen that shouldn’t happen. Once you start giving life to your characters, they will sort of dictate the direction. Writer’s Block, in my experience, is often the manifestation of trying to write against how you subconsciously know the story should go. If you have ideas you think won’t work, and that’s what’s stopping you, write it out anyway. The action of writing junk is just as useful as writing something that sticks. You can work through the editing parts later. Just keep writing.

QUESTION: How do you work thru discouragement and frustration, after finishing first drafts while other stories are clamoring for attention? Do you pursue the others, while working on the edits of the first draft?

AARON: I think this is one of those questions where you might get three different answers from us. It really depends on how best you work. I recommend putting a first draft away for a bit (if you have the time–sometimes deadlines will keep you from doing this). When you come back to it a few weeks later, it will all feel new to you, and you can evaluate it more objectively. Sometimes writing another short work in between the completion of a novel and the beginning of another can help you keep the writing juices flowing, get you excited about something new, and you can snowball that excitement into your next project, or back into your first draft. Others prefer to polish their first draft as quickly as possible. They like to wrap something up before they unboxing something new, so to speak. You just need to be aware of how best you work. I recommend trying a few different strategies.

In terms of the discouragement and frustration that comes from finishing a first draft, that’s usually related to our own self-critical natures. This is one reason why putting it away for a bit can be beneficial. But some like to get back into the first draft for editing purposes right away. In so doing, they’re able to see that the draft is never as bad as they imagined.

Al: I am a proponent of the creative walk-away, the act of taking a step back so you can better march forward. This works on crossword puzzles, problem solving (much of fiction writing is problem solving), making difficult decisions, and novel writing. The only place it doesn’t work is in gun fights and performing surgeries. So I think Aaron is right on all counts. Distance, for a short time only, can bring about a freshening of the brain.

That being said, I don’t recommend starting a second project while immersed in another. That’s asking for trouble. There’s a very could chance you can end up with two, three, or more unfinished works.

In one of my military/action adventure novels, I have a soldier talking about something his father used to say. It went something like this: “My dad used to tell me to eat what was in front of me. At first, I thought he was just telling me to finish my dinner but later I learned that he was teaching me to do the task at hand before worrying about the next thing to come my way.” I give the same advice. Finish what you start (unless it’s unsalvageable), before immersing yourself in another project. Think about other projects? Sure. Make some notes? Sure. But finish what you start.

Dean Koontz tells the story of how Odd Thomas popped into his head while he in the middle of a different novel. He stopped, made some notes, wrote a few lines on a legal pad, then put the pad in his desk drawer and went back to work. He pulled from the drawer when he sent work in progress off.

MOLLY: Take a much-needed break. While working on NOLA, I made plenty of scrap notes for CENTRAL but didn’t start writing it until NOLA was off to the editor. It’s important to give as much focus to one project as possible so you’re not spread too thin. Otherwise your works will suffer. You want your readers to give their full attention to your book while reading, you should do so while writing it.

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