building first drafts and cygnet moon

First drafts are very fluid for me--they shift and merge a little at a time as I work through the story. A strong synopsis gives me an excellent road map to use, but all stories shift and merge and change as they go along, primarily due to the growth of the characters.

During the course of a first draft, I find or create various images to help me visualize and describe the characters and their environment; I write scenes that help me define characters and their motives but never make it into the novel. I draw maps, or locate pictures or scenes of different landscapes, and sometimes I find pictures of men or women who make me think of my characters. I keep them on hand for inspiration. Sometimes, I post them to my Tumblr, other times I just save them to my hard drive and pull them up when I need to strengthen my inner vision.

About a week ago, I changed my cover pic on Facebook (and a couple of other places) just for something new. Back during the winter, Robert Dunbar posted a spooky little pic on his Pinterest page that intrigued me. I took the pic and edited it heavily in my photoshop program in order to make it look like a character from my new work in progress, Cygnet Moon.

Several people asked about the picture and a few people speculated that the character was supposed to be evil, but he's not. I'm reposting him here with the excerpt so you can meet Makar's ar'nel with the understanding that all of this might change before the first draft is finished.

This is the first time that I've photoshopped a pic to make a character and I'm really proud of how he turned out, because this is exactly how I imagined Makar's ar'nel to look:

He is a black shadow with wild hair and eyes like nickel. My ar’nel is my magic made manifest, the breath of my spirit. My grandmother’s ar’nel exhibits itself as a great gray swan that follows her like a shade. When she visited me, her ar’nel filled my chambers and enveloped her in a pearl mist. The tapestries undulated like waves and the shields that decorate the walls trembled in her passing.

My ar’nel barely causes the lamp flames to flutter. I glare at him. If he was a great spirit like grandmother’s swan, I could use him to force the guards aside; they would have no choice but to obey my commands. Instead, I am left with this wicked magic that refuses to obey me. He is good for tipping over inkpots and knocking paintings askew but little else.

I've got two short stories to finish, then I am back into Makar's world in Cygnet Moon. If you want to leave a comment, let me know what you do to build your worlds during your first drafts.

Writing your hook

I'm raising myself from the world (or in my case, Woerld) of edits on Miserere to give you a slice of StellarCon 35. I realized there were so many great events going on last weekend, it would be impossible to  cram them all into one blog post. So I've decided to break some of my favorite parts into several posts. These will include people I've met and workshops I got to attend, and I hope to point you toward some speculative fiction authors that I had the privilege to meet.

One thing I've always loved about StellarCon is Allen Wold's Writers' Workshop. The last time I had the opportunity to attend this workshop, StellarCon was still in the single digits. That ought to tell you all you need to know about Allen and me. Like all finely aged things, Allen's workshop has gotten better.

Here's how it goes: The only people allowed into the workshop are the participants. Allen doesn't want spectators in the workshop; his intention is to create a safe environment for novice and experienced writers to share their work. Allen gives the attendees a writing assignment and we have ten minutes to complete the assignment. Then Allen and a panel of talented writers and editors critique the attendees' works.

This year's panel included: Allen Wold, Danny Birt, Barbara Friend Ish (you can also fine Barbara at Mercury Retrograde Press), Debra Killeen, and Darcy Wold.

Allen never tells anyone what the assignment is prior to the workshop to ensure that everyone is on an even playing field. The point of the workshop is for individuals to see what they can produce with a first draft and how they can improve that draft. We were really lucky in that we were able to return on Sunday morning and share our second drafts with the panel.

This year's assignment was to write a narrative hook for a short story by introducing questions that could only be answered by reading further. We were to write approximately one hundred words (or fewer) to introduce a character with a word or two about the character's gender, age, and name. Of course we were to include a setting, time, and place. We had ten minutes to write this.

Everyone did a wonderful job and the panelists made very constructive comments on each individual's work. I can't print anything anyone else wrote, but I will share with you what I came up with during the workshop so you can see how it worked.

Here is the first draft that I came up with on Saturday:

The rain came down like nails on the roof. Billy stumbled through the door to his granddaddy’s bedroom. His granddaddy had promised to give him the shotgun when he turned sixteen, but granddaddy was gone now. Gone like mama and that Naomi-girl from down the road.

The soles of Billy’s sneakers slid on the hardwood floor. The shotgun was nowhere to be seen. He shut the door and moved toward the closet. Quiet, he had to be quiet. Something outside slapped the bedroom window and Billy dived for the floor. The acid weight of fear rumbled through his stomach.

The panel made the following comments:  

  • The paragraphs had no barb to hook the reader (Allen explained that the hook is whatever it takes in first paragraph that peaks curiosity and makes you want to read more. The barb changes what you thought was going on.) So one panelist suggested that I needed to introduce what was slapping the window and bring that back up quickly. Use this point to build and relax the tension throughout those opening sentences.
  • It was also suggested that I use the senses of smell and touch as well as sight and sound.
  • One panelist loved imagery of first sentence, but felt my sentence structure needed to vary. I needed to mix up imagery and structure by varying my sentence structure.
  • Another panelist really liked the invisible hook and the mood of the piece. He suggested in the first draft that I should list the key elements of story, which in this case are: having to be quiet and to stress the quiet in the beginning and keep reiterating the quiet; the hunt for the shotgun. He said I should reduce words that don’t have to do with key elements.

So I rewrote my first draft based on those comments. On Sunday morning I read this:

The rain came down like nails on the roof. Billy opened the door to his granddaddy’s bedroom. Quiet, he had to be quiet. He strangled a sob and eased the door shut, wincing when the latch clicked. Granddaddy promised to give him the shotgun when he turned sixteen, but granddaddy was gone now. Gone like mama and that Naomi-girl from down the road. Nothing left but whispers dying beneath the rain.

Something outside slapped the bedroom window. Billy dropped to the floor. He tried to think of a prayer, but all that came to his mind was Jesus Loves Me. The smell of camphor and old man sweat had soaked into the wood beneath his cheek. Billy felt the vibration of a footstep through the boards.

See the difference?

So in a nutshell, here's what I learned from Allen, Barbara, Debra, Danny, and Darcy about writing my opening paragraph whether it is for a novel or a short-story:

  • Don't just have a hook, but include a barb to change what the reader thought was going on;
  • Engage all your character's senses to describe the world around them;
  • Vary imagery and sentence structure (intermingle short sentences with long sentences);
  • List the key elements of the story and reduce words that don’t have to do with those key elements.

Did you get a chance to attend Allen's workshop? If you did and would like to share your paragraphs and what you learned send, them to me or leave a comment and I'll get in touch with you. If you've posted yours on your own blog, by all means, leave a link to your blog in the comments. I'd love to see what you have done.

If enough people respond, I'll run a separate blog post for each one or combine them into one blog post. Or if you like, tell us what you learned while writing your first draft.