Guest Post by M. Todd Gallowglas
The hardest part about this blog post was figuring out what to write about. There’s so much about writing that I have bouncing around in my head that sometimes, it’s really hard for me to sift through it all and get one thing separated from another. However, when we really think about what our goal as writers is, the end result of all the scribbling on paper and pounding on the keyboard is that we want to craft fiction that will engage our reader and draw them deep into the story.
Many writers will give you many different answers on this subject. Ask any three writers, and you’re likely to get at least seven different answers. I’ll give you four – four tools that I use once I complete my first draft and really start working on the crafting of my stories. These tools are:
“Begin in an experience, either real or imagined.” –Richard Hugo
The key word in this passage is “experience.” We’re talking about the physical aspect of human life on earth, or whatever world you happen to set your story on in the case of Science Fiction and Fantasy. We can get into theme, abstraction, opinion, irony, or any of the other ambiguous terms that people use to talk about writing later, but in the beginning, it’s all about specificity.
When I write, I have a sticky-note posted to the upper, left-hand corner of my laptop. It’s got all five senses on it. This is so I can remember to put at least (bare minimum) into any scene I’m working on. Now, I don’t just throw these senses in randomly throughout the scene; rather, I add them to enhance the flow of the story. Here’s an example from the prologue of my novel First Chosen:
“Even though it was the middle of the night when Kaeldyr arrived at the manor house, everyone in the household was wide awake. Servants scurried through the hallways. The lady of the house was with child, and her labor pains had started earlier that day. Even the barrier between worlds barely muffled the noise as her cries echoed through the halls. In the physical realm she must have been deafening.
Entering the birthing room, Kaeldyr looked down upon the lady. The sheets clung to her sweat-soaked body. Her eyes, deep gray, like a storm rolling in from an angry sea, blinked through the tears. A midwife sat next to the lady’s head. She whispered to the lady in a calming voice and dabbed the lady’s forehead with a wet cloth. Another midwife sat at the far end of the bed, swaddling clothes ready. Surrounding each of the midwives, Kaeldyr saw a nimbus of light, shifting and multicolored, revealing the strength and age of their souls. Despite the physical age of their current lives, both possessed relatively young souls. The oldest of them had only been reborn five times. The light of the lady’s soul was different, as her kind only had one life. Where the midwives’ souls were rainbows of bright, vibrant colors, the lady’s soul was shades of blue, gray, and white.”
We have sights (the easy part), sounds (also fairly), but I sneak in touch, with the sheets clinging to the body and tears rolling down the eyes. Even though the point-of-view character is not experiencing these sensations, the reader understands what those other characters are feeling.
Now, to push Solidity to its next level we dive into:
Okay, so we’ve got our characters experiencing the world around them with the five senses, and we’re doing our utmost to get three of those senses in per scene, now what? We make the details of those senses as specific as possible. These are the details that are going to make your writing stand out because you’re going to grab hold of the reader and force him or her to become a part of your story.
Let’s look at another piece from the same scene of First Chosen:
“Pushing his finger through the woman’s abdomen, Kaeldyr touched the unborn soul. In all his centuries as a celestial being, Kaeldyr had never done such a thing. Touching this soul was like tasting sweetened fruit tea, smelling a rose, and listening to a mother’s lullaby – all through his fingers. As he probed the soul, he felt like it – no, not it, she; this was definitely a girl – she examined him in return. The sweetness that Kaeldyr felt turned slightly salty, though not enough to be unpleasant. She seemed to be asking, What are you?”
See how again I put in multiple senses? Also these are very specific, and if I may be so bold as to toot my own horn, they evoke very specific images, especially when we shift from sweet to salty. I spent a lot of time on this one paragraph because this child is the main focus of the novel, which brings us to…
Now that we’re working with the five senses, and we’re using those senses to describe concrete, specific details, we have to choose what we want to describe. As writers, we can’t get it all in. There are too many details to stick in, so we have to determine the most important details for our story. As I said in the example above, the child I describe is the main focus of the novel, and so I give a bunch of details to draw the reader’s attention to her. The more time a writer spends describing something, them more important that person, place, or thing should be to the overall story. Here’s another example, this time from the first chapter:
“Colette thrust her hands into the chest, drew out the knife, and handed it to Julianna. From tip to pommel, the weapon was just a hair longer than Julianna’s forearm. For the most part, it was a non-descript weapon. The hilt was a dark brown wood that nearly matched the dark brown of the leather sheath. The blade was sturdy Tsiatsu steel, with a blood groove the length of Julianna’s middle finger on one side – typical for all Tsiatsu weapons. The weapon’s only distinctive feature was a single word etched into the blade opposite the blood groove.
Julianna didn’t know what the word meant, but every time she looked at it, she felt that she should know. She’d once shown it to Uncle Alyxandros, and he had quietly suggested that she might want to keep the knife hidden away, or better yet, dispose of it entirely. Julianna could not do that. It was one of two things she’d received from her mother. The other was her eyes. Her deep, piercing gray eyes were extremely rare in girls born of Koma blood and nearly nonexistent in girls from other lands. It was the first of Julianna’s features that most men complimented, and in doing so, they earned the first coin of Julianna’s contempt. Complimenting her eyes was far too easy.”
I put a lot into these two paragraphs about the dagger, the word kostota, Julianna’s eyes, and how they all tie back to Juliann’s mother. All of these things are very important, not just to the first novel First Chosen, but to the series as a whole. I put them into the first chapter and point an arrow to the careful reader, letting him or her know that these things are important by focusing on them so early during the narrative. I also refer back to them now and then in other places, just to keep them in the forefront of the reader’s mind.
On the other hand, if a detail is not so important, we shouldn’t spend a whole lot of time on it. We can give out little things about setting and secondary characters, but we don’t want to bog the reader down with too many details on minor aspects of the story. Save your best stuff for the things that really matter.
We’re not looking to be nice to our characters, let them “win,” nor have everything resolve in a happy ending. This is about not taking the easy way out. We’re generous with our stories to the point of being hyper-honest and completely true to the story. It means letting go of our own preconceptions of the story, and really understanding that sometimes the story we originally sat down to tell is not what the story will eventually become. We may have beta-readers and proof readers, editors and agents, all of them giving us feedback and advice; but ultimately, we need to hold true to what the story wants to be. The story is the boss, and our characters need to have the freedom to live, and sometimes die, by their own choices. I’m not going to give any examples of this one, because it’s the most elusive of all the tools, and ultimately each story is different in this regard.
As I said at the beginning of this post: I only use these tools once I finish my first draft. Sure, I probably use some of them subconsciously while flying by the seat of my pants to get that draft out, but I never stop to think about the story that much. I’d get too overwhelmed. These tools are for when you can step back and see the forest through the trees and be able to tell what elements of your work need to be enhanced and which need to be cut back. So, the next time you finish a draft and go back to it. Take a glance over these tools. Maybe they can help you rework your story to engage the reader just that much more, enough so that he or she tells a friend or two and gets a snowball of word of mouth rolling.
M. Todd Gallowglas has been writing stories of one form or another since the third grade when he received his very first writing assignment. He had been a professional storyteller at Renaissance Faires and Medieval festivals for twenty years. In 2009, he received his Bachelor of Arts in English, with a focus in Creative Writing, from San Francisco State University. He is a regular fiction contributor for the Call of Cthulhu card game from Fantasy Flight Games Inc, and writes several semi-regular blogs and on-line columns.
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