Friday, May 25, 2012

Lesson 2: Setting

Okay, lets go with Lesson 2: Setting.

I used to always want to have the settings of my stories in space, or in some fantasy land. That way no one could tell me it wasn't real or authentic. Plus it seemed to increase the possibilities for the story.

Then I remembered the old adage about writing about what you know. Nothing makes you feel more stupid and less interesting than trying to write about what you know. Assuming most people are like me, you feel like your life is relatively boring and uninteresting. As I've gotten older I've come to appreciate the lack of drama in my life, but as far as writing a story that will hold someone's attention goes it doesn't provide a very deep well to draw on.

Most of the books I enjoy reading take place in either a big city in which I've never lived, or the main characters race around the world to locations I've barely heard of let alone spell correctly.  There's something exciting and fun watching Indiana Jones in exotic locations. Though I'm writing YA books right now, I personally enjoy thrillers and spy books and that means international intrigue. So, what do you do?

I know very little about the world outside my hometown. I currently have a sort of interesting job that has broaded my understanding of people. I teach English to people in foreign countries. I work for a company called "TellMeMore," based in France. I contact, either by Skype or through the Internet, students who live in France, Italy, Germany, Spain, China, Korea, Poland, Morocco, Venesula,  Columbia, Russia, Canada, and Mexica. It has been fun to not only teach them English but to discuss other subjects with them ranging from politics and religion to when a person should start dating or get married. This input hasn't necessarily increased my "setting" knowledge about places, (although it has improved my geography a bit), but, it has given me an insight into people around the world. Lo and behold, we really are all more alike than we would ever believe. I've met great and wonderful people every where and come to discover that what they really want out of life is pretty much the same as what I want out of life. And that knowledge does help in its way.

Well, to swing this thing back into settings, I have a some-what developed view on the write what you know about concept. Whatever setting you write about, you have got to be able to describe it well enough that a reader feels like he/she is there. And more importantly that you know what you are talking about. Consider a book you've read where the action takes place in a foreign city; they don't tell you about everything. They give you just enough details to make it feel right. They usually include a little anecdotal story about a place which really makes them sound like they have researched the place or perhaps lived there for a while. But, I don't think that is necessary. I've even come to think that reading these stories is sometimes part of my background search. I'm not talking about plaigarizing their material, but using it as a framework.

I read a blog by Stephanie Meyers where she said she picked the "Forks" location for her story by doing a Google search for where it was rainiest in America. She then did some research and wrote her story. I don't know if she ever visited Forks prior to the release of Twilight, but I don't think she did. So, in short, I don't think you have to be a world traveler to set your story in a foreign location. I think it would help immeasurably, but it's not a do-or-die proposition as long as you sound like you know what you're talking about.

You can probably create that overall setting feel by doing research and dropping key descriptions along the way. Even referring to a fence as being "red" can give it the right feel when done at the right time and place. What you can't skip, however, is detail.  By detail, I'm referring to a specific place where any action in your book is going to take place.

Let's say you are writing a shoot-out scene in a house. That house may be down your street, or in Timbuktu, but where ever it is, you must have a very detailed idea in your mind as to what it looks like. Where do the halls go? What is on the walls? Carpeting or hardwood? As the action moves through that location you need to know exactly where the characters are and what they are doing in relation to the world around them.

Now, having made a pitch for a setting any where in the world, I'm going to now make a pitch for writing a story that takes place where you live or in a location you know very well.

Bewitched, (at least in this first book) takes place in Smithfield and Logan, Utah, where I live. I used to shy away from where I live because I thought, Utah? Nothing happens here! That's not as true as it used to be, but lets assume it is true. Let's say you live in a  back water no place. That's sometimes exactly what your story needs or wants. Your monster doesn't always have to terrorize Tokyo. You can even make the story itself depend on the fact that it is taking place in a small town, or (where ever you live). In Bewitched, the characters are searching for a spell book that was hidden thousands of years ago. The location was purposely remote. Now the reason it is here in an out-of-the-way place all makes sense. It HAD to happen here. No where else would have made sense. (The TV show True Blood is in a small town in the south called Beau Temps. I don't even know if it is a real place, but the description is great.)

As far as Bewitched goes, I took a little car ride around town to find a location for Samantha and Clara's house. I even wrote down the turns I took and which little town I was in. I don't think these things have to be exact in a work of fiction (though it doesn't hurt) but it should be detailed enough to sound right. I took pictures of the local trees around the house I decided to make theirs. I asked my mother-in-law what they were called since she knew and I didn't. I wrote down a description of the house, but I then played with that a little. As a matter of fact while I was out in front of this lady's house taking pictures and writing notes, she came out to ask me what I was doing. I felt kind of stupid, but I told her what I was doing and she was happy to help out and answer any questions I had.

I did the same thing with Sky View High School. Since the high school actually exists and is just down the street from me I figured I better go and check it out. Someone from the office showed me around and answered my questions. I also asked a student a few questions. Some of the action that takes place below the school I made up (if there is such a place under Sky View they didn't tell me and I didn't ask), but the rest of the description of the school and the Rec Center I took from the actual place. In my mind when I drive by the school I see the "mausoleum" on the west lawn. :)

That doesn't mean you have to go to a place you want to use, but I would suggest drawing a little map. For another book I'm using I actually took photos of some girls I went to junior high with right from our old year books to use as I described what the characters looked like and how they acted.

Well, I know I've rambled my way through most of this, but I hope it was helpful. The next lesson will be about....Plot or Character....perhaps both. :)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Writing Lesson 1: The Idea

I thought this might be a good place to do something I've thought about doing for some time: teach how to write a story.  There's a lot that goes into doing it that doesn't always come naturally to a person. There are other parts I think you continue to learn or fine tune throughout your life.

So with that in mind, here is lesson 1: The Idea

This you would think would be automatic. I have an idea, now what?  Well, I think you need to coax ideas, play with them. In many ways they're the best part of writing. I want to write a story about a boy who can fly. Great! Now play with the concept. Has he always been able to fly? When did he find out he could fly? Does he use wings? Does he fly in some other way? What is going to happen to him? What is the conflict? What does he do with the ability to fly? How can I turn this into a premise?

A premise is term I use to mean a basic outline of a story. It isn't a complete outline, it is more the idea with a bit of a conflict and perhaps even a conclusion, but not much else.  Using the example above I would say if you started with the idea of a boy who could fly, your premise would be what if there was a boy who could fly who escaped from a secret laboratory and is being chased by his creators who want to exploit him? or kill him?  That's the difference. A premise is an idea with a direction.

Now, you may look at the idea above and say, "Fine, but come on, a boy who can fly? The idea has been done a hundred times, there are even movies that have done it."  True, but it doesn't necessarily make it a bad story idea. I'm not sure there are really any new ideas out there. If you have an idea you can be certain someone else has thought of it, written about it and made a lot of money off of it. What makes it worth writing about is how you change the idea. Your unique wrinkle will make an idea into an excellent premise from which to make a book.

Look at vampires. They are the most overused idea in the world  right now. Usually when the idea of writing a vampire story occurs to me I tell myself no - no way! It has been done into the ground.  Then I think of how I could do it differently.  What if I wrote a story about a vampire who is blind?  Or what if the vampire catches a disease from those he feeds on? What if he has AIDS because of someone he's bitten? What if he enjoys surfing?  Anyway, you get the idea. There are ways to mess around with your intial idea so that it becomes a fresh new premise for a book. (By the way I did just recently write a short story about a vampire trying to date for the first time.)

This is all fine when an idea occurs to you out of no where, but what about when there is an assignment, or a contest you're interested in and you need a new and creative idea now?  How do you get it to appear in your head? Easy, play the little game I call, "What if...?"  What if vampires fought aliens who invaded the earth? The vampires end up saving the planet because the alien's weapons won't kill them and they don't know to use wooden stakes? (Now I'm mixing ideas, vampires and aliens, but that's okay too).

I had an assignment and decided I wanted to write a short story about a genie. Well, once again, what could I do that hadn't been done a hundred times?  Well, what if the person who rubs the lamp can't see the genie because he's blind? And let's make it more interesting than that, what if he's also deaf, so he can't hear the genie? He doesn't even know he's released a genie from a lamp because the genie can't tell him, or show him.  Now we have an interesting idea.  The premise would be, what does the genie do? Does he grant the kid a wish or sneak off? If he grants the wish, would it be to restore his senses, or is that what the kid would really wish for?.....and we're off.

That concludes the first lesson.  Lesson 2: Setting will be the next blog entry. Possibly tomorrow.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Working on the Blog

What a day! I've been working on my blog page, getting it to look right. It still isn't where I'd like it to be, but it is a lot closer.  I've also been able to link it with my webpage:

Next I need to create an author page in Facebook and then it is on to Twitter.  So much to learn and do.  Crazy, I tell you.  I also need to start liaising with some other authors, visiting their sites and webpages and blogs. Make some friends and really network this thing. When it comes to being an author I thought I'd just write and work on edits and let someone else do the marketing and promoting other than perhaps some book signings or something.  I didn't really want to get involved with this part of things, but I guess that's how it goes, so... man up!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Discussion with Genevieve

My wife, daughter, Genevieve, and I were talking about Bewitched this evening. Genevieve really like the "Crissy" character. We talked about how she plays such a pivotal role in the story and is made even more interesting by the fact that she is mentally handicapped. I originally wanted her to have Down's syndrome because of the innocent quality of these kids. I had one at a school I was teaching at come up to me one day and put her arms around me and just hug me. It was an amazing experience. I think that all these kids offer us hidden things we don't quite get as "regular" intelligence people. They really do have a magical quality that is hard to quantify, but it's there nevertheless.

In any case, I also told Genevieve that there is something more to Crissy that will come out in later books. If you look at Bewitched carefully you'll notice some things about Crissy that go beyond her regular Oracle abilities. That's all I'm going to say at this point.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Editing Bewitched

I'm going to start this blog by chronicling where I am with the publishing of my first book: "Bewitched."  At the moment I am going through the first round of edits given to me by a very intelligent (and I assume beautiful as well) editor named Kelly Hashway.  My first response after moving through chapters one and two is that I'm a horrible writer.  I may be a good story-teller, at least I hope so, but my writing has something to be desired. The good thing is I feel like I'm learning quite a bit as I move through the manuscript accepting the alterations she has made to it.

My plans from this point forward are to complete "Bewitched," then finish a younger aged novel called "Where is Cherry Soda," then start work on "The Return of the Familiar" the sequel to "Bewitched." Once all that is done I have a really fun book I've started which will also be a series called, "The Suburban Adventures of Gabriel Winston: Ghost of a Chance."  You can read a bit more about it at my other website: