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Get Set: Setting Writing Goals and Timelines #ReadySetWrite

Monday, February 16, 2015

#ReadySetWrite: Get Set--Setting Writing Goals and Timelines | KayeDacus.comIn addition to getting all of the creative aspects of your story ready and set for writing, it’s important to make sure you have goals and timelines when it comes to how you’re going to write your story—and how long it will take you to write your story.

It’s all well and good to be ambitious and say you’re going to have the rough draft of your manuscript finished in three months—or even less time. And, if you’re an experienced writer and you know your own production ability, then you know whether or not that’s a reasonable goal.

Setting Writing Goals

As we discussed in the Goals vs. Dreams series, it’s all well and good to dream of writing a novel, but unless you give your dreams marching orders—unless you set actionable, personally achievable goals—you’ll likely never see those dreams fulfilled.

Remember, when it comes to setting goals for your writing:

  • Don’t be vague—set a goal with a specific, detailed end product as your result.
  • Make a checklist of actionable, personally achievable steps.
  • Set long-term and short-term goals.
  • Set a timeline for every step it will take to achieve your ultimate goal—a completed manuscript.
  • You can read more about these steps here.

Setting Your Timeline for your First Draft

Once you’ve laid out your goals and actionable items—and you know what your overall timeline is, you know how much time you need to get your first draft written. When you know you have a certain total word-count you want to reach by a certain date, you need to break it down into smaller, more easily achievable goals.

But before you even start looking at numbers, you need to look at your calendar.

#ReadySetWrite: Get Set--Setting Writing Goals and Timelines |

As you can see, my schedule stays pretty busy, between blogging daily, working full time, personal training, going to the gym, and meeting up with a friend once a week to write. Then there are the weekly tasks, like laundry, house cleaning, and meal planning and cooking ahead for those busy weeks. And don’t forget special events/occasions. Since my friends and I go to the movies regularly, and since it usually involves a meal before or after, I make sure to block out that time on my calendar, too.

Once you know on what days you will and won’t be able to write, then you’ll be able to better calculate a regular (daily/weekly) word-count goal. So, for example, if you want to write an 85,000-word first-draft in 90 days, you’d set a daily word-count goal of 945 words per day, or a weekly goal of 7,085 words per week for twelve weeks.

For someone just starting out on your first manuscript, you will want to give yourself more time than that. Because writing every day is a habit that, like any habit, needs time to become a normal part of your everyday life, you may want to start with a smaller goal of, say, 500 words per day or 1,500 words per week.

#ReadySetWrite: Get Set--Setting Writing Goals and Timelines | .. #ReadySetWrite: Get Set--Setting Writing Goals and Timelines |

In addition to setting a total word-count goal and daily goals, in the past, I’ve used a planner to create and track a daily running total of what my total word-count should be if I’m keeping up with my daily goals.

#ReadySetWrite: Get Set--Setting Writing Goals and Timelines | KayeDacus.comThe best way to figure out your writing timeline is to figure out what your manuscript word-count goal is. Then, once you do that, you might want a planner of some sort you can use as a daily accountability tool to track your writing. Or, if an online tracker like the one I’m using to track my reading goal or my word count for my current story over on the right-hand side, works better for you, visit Story Toolz.

TL;dr version:

  • Set a total word-count goal for your first draft.
  • Set a date by which you want to have your first draft finished.
  • Look at your calendar to see when you will and won’t be able to write.
  • Set daily/weekly word-count goals to be able to meet your deadline goal.
  • Track your word count in a planner or online widget to make sure you’re on track to meet your deadline goal.

What are some other tips and advice you can share about setting goals and timelines?

Costume Drama Thursday: Comanche Moon #TBT

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Costume Drama Thursday |

Karl Urban as Woodrow Call

Karl Urban as Woodrow Call

If it’s not obvious why I was originally excited to watch this TV miniseries, and why I continue to go back to it time after time, even though I don’t enjoy the storyline of it all that much, you haven’t been around here for very long!


Title: Comanche Moon
Historical Setting: Texas, 1850s–1860s
Starring: Karl Urban, Elizabeth Banks, Steve Zahn, Linda Cardellini, Val Kilmer, Rachel Griffiths
Original Release Year: 2008



Get Set: Determining Your Story’s Tone #ReadySetWrite

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

#ReadySetWrite: Get Set--Determining Your Story's Tone and Voice |

My name is Tobey Heydon and I am practically seventeen years old, since my sixteenth birthday was five whole months ago. Actually, Tobey is my midle name and my first is Henrietta. My mother got sort of desperate when her third child turned out to be another girl, so she named me for my father. But, thank Heaven, my grandmother’s maiden name was Tobey. Otherwise it would have been too ghastly. People might have called me Henny for short and I would have simply died.

(du Jardin, p. 3)

Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.

(Green, p. 3)

I like to save things. Not important things like whales or people or the environment. Silly things. Porcelain bells, the kind you get at sourvenir shops. Cookie cutters you’ll never use, because who needs a cookie in the shape of a foot? Ribbons for my hair. Love letters. Of all the things I save, I guess you could say my love letters are my most prized possession.

(Han, p. 1)

Hello, World!

I’ve decided to start a blog.

This blog.

Why, you might ask?

You know when you shake a Coke can and then you open it and it explodes everywhere? Well, that’s how I feel right now. I have so many things I want to say fizzing up inside of me, but I don’t have the confidence to say them out loud.

(Sugg, p. 1)

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

(Collins, p. 3)

Aside from point of view, what’s one thing all of these opening paragraphs have in common?

Yes, they’re all YA books. That’s not it.

No, not all of them have been made into movies.

Give up?

All of them do a pretty good job of establishing the tone of the book right from the beginning.

Now, I’ll admit that I haven’t read a few of these (Green, Han, and Sugg). But through my extensive research (reading a few reviews on Goodreads) and what I’ve heard about them through word of mouth, I think it’s pretty safe to say that the way each of these books is written follows in the same tone that’s established in these opening lines.

Let’s look a couple of other examples quickly:

Mr. and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

(Rowling, HPSS, p. 1)

As you’ve likely recognized (or guessed) these are the opening lines of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s [Philosopher’s] Stone. Right from the beginning, the tone is set—Rowling doesn’t open with the murder of Harry’s parents or with Sirius “killing” Peter Pettigrew and being hauled off to Azkaban. She doesn’t open with the revelation that Harry has been made to live in the broom cupboard under the stairs for almost his whole life. She doesn’t even open with wizards, but with muggles—the most muggliest muggles ever to live! She throws in a “thank you very much” and “they just didn’t hold with such nonsense” which immediately set the tone of the story—even though this will deal with things that are not “perfectly normal” but “strange or mysterious,” it’s going to be lighthearted.

The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane. For a second they stood quite still, wands directed at each other’s chests; then, recognizing each other, they stowed their wands beneath their cloaks and started walking briskly in the same direction.

(Rowling, HPDH, p. 1)

In the opening lines of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, we get no “thank you very much” no “nonsense.” It’s brisk. It’s “moonlit.” It’s immediately tense and full of suspicion. Who are these unnamed men? Why are they meeting in a “narrow, moonlit lane”? Why do they immediately pull their weapons on each other? How do they know each other? We get a sense of impending doom rather than a lighthearted introduction to a new and magical world that we see in the first book.

That’s what it means to set a tone.

Will your story be lighthearted? serious?

Will it be dark and moody or bright and cheery?

Soulful and somber? Or fun and witty?

Cynical and sarcastic? Or witty and irreverent?

Will your viewpoint characters’ POV scenes be different from each other in tone? Do you have a character who is an optimist while the other’s a pessimist? Show this in the tone—in the words you choose and how you string them together. In the length and complexity/simplicity of your sentence structures. How do you want readers to feel as they’re reading your story?

Sometimes, you may think that you know the tone of your story, only to get a few thousand words into the first draft and realize that it isn’t working at all. I tried writing a story in which the heroine had social anxiety disorder but which was still in keeping with the lighthearted tone I use in my contemporary novels. But that character’s viewpoint scenes started getting more and more angsty and insular, taking the tone of the story into a much darker place than I wanted—one that didn’t really work for the lighthearted, hopeful romance novels I write.

So I ended up going back to the “get my characters ready” part of preparing my story and changed her character quite a bit. And she became the Meredith Guidry who now appears in Menu for Romance.

If you aren’t really sure what tone your story needs, let your characters help you decide. Freewrite in your main characters’ viewpoints and then go back and see what their moods are, and what mood you’re in when reading it. From that, you should be able to get a better grasp on, and figure out how to capitalize on, the tone of your story.

Works Cited:

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1949. Print.

du Jardin, Rosamond. Practically Seventeen. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2008. Print.

Green, John. The Fault in Our Stars. New York: Dutton Books/Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2012. Print.

Han, Jenny. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. New York: Simon & Schuster/BFYR, 2014. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic Inc., 1997. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic Inc., 2007. Print.

Sugg, Zoe. Girl Online. New York: Atria Books/Keywords Press, 2014. Print.

Get Set: Doing Your Research #ReadySetWrite

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

#ReadySetWrite: Get Set--Doing Your Research | KayeDacus.comWhen I first started writing Menu for Romance, I had a cursory knowledge of professional/restaurant kitchens—after all, I paid my dues my senior year of high school and worked in a restaurant, and I watched Food Network and Top Chef and other cooking shows religiously. So in one scene, I had Major’s sous chef wipe his hands on the towel tucked into his apron-string at his waist.

And then, after I finally got around to doing a little research, I read this:

And a word about side towels. The Culinary imported these sturdy items—gray-and-white cotton cloths that students tuck into their apron strings—from Germany because it couldn’t find acceptable ones in the United States, and they were excellent tools. At this stage in a student’s career [the first week], the towels were crisp and clean, all but new. “Side towels are not for wiping your board,” Pardus said. “They are not for wiping your knife, they’re not for dabbing your brow. They’re for grabbing hot things. Things are going to be hot. Anticipate it, expect it.” (from The Making of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman, pgs. 18–19)

Oops. Okay, so that was an easy fix. But if I’d been a good girl and done my research (or at least some research) ahead of time—when I was in the planning stage of the story—I wouldn’t have made that mistake . . . and many, many others that followed.

Doing Your Research

We’re told to write what we know. But that advice is more about taking what we know and extrapolating it into other situations, rather than just about the specific things we’ve experienced in our lives (read more about that here).

I knew restaurant kitchens—I’d worked in one. Right?


I knew how to work as a hostess, as an order-taker on the line (it was a Golden Corral back in the day when it was still a budget-friendly steakhouse not a graze-all-day buffet place), and as a salad bar stocker/cleaner. We had cooks—we didn’t have chefs. I’d never worked in a fine-dining restaurant. I’d never worked in high-end catering. I’d never worked with anyone who’d been to culinary school. So I had A LOT to learn.

And that was just for one character.

As I mentioned in the Finding Your Beginning in The End series, you win or lose your reader’s trust on the first page. I also wrote: Even if you think you know a topic, always find backup sources. Someone else will always know more about it than you do and will tear you (as the author) and your story apart for any mistakes.

I learned more about the city of Nashville in the 18 or so months it took me to write the Matchmakers trilogy than I had in the entire 14–15 years I’d lived here before that. It was actually harder for me to write contemporary novels set in a city I’ve lived longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my life than it was to write contemporary novels set in a fictional city I’d been working with for years but was still developing as I was writing the Bonneterre books (and am continuing to develop while working on Jenn’s story now).

It’s obvious (I hope) that I had to do tons of research for both the Ransome series and the Great Exhibition books. There was so much research, in fact, that I included a section about it in the proposals that went out to editors for both series. It wasn’t just the history of the era, but the vernacular (of both the everyday and naval variety), the settings, the clothes, the transportation, the social expectations and strictures, etc. And almost all of these were things I needed to know before I could write.

I’ve spoken with various authors over the past two decades and am always shocked when I hear one say that they don’t bother with research before writing. What?!?! How can you NOT do any research before writing—especially for historical fiction? (Or even contemporary—there are always things that a writer needs to know more about.) I don’t care how well you think you know an era or a setting or a profession—there are details you’re going to need, issues that might arise, things you will have forgotten. And it will be obvious, even after multiple revisions, because you’re going to miss something.

But if you do a good bit of your research before you start writing—research that may start even way back when you’re developing the premise of your story—when something comes up as you’re writing, you’re either already going to have notes on it, or you’re going to know which book or website from which you’re likely to find the information you need.

Organizing Your Research
There are as many ways to organize research as there are writers. I work best with the information broken down into topics. And to do this, I love to use OneNote. Here’s an image of the Research section of my notebook for the Great Exhibition series:

#ReadySetWrite: Get Set--Doing Your Research |

In addition to the Great Exhibition itself, I have sections on costuming, the era in general (which includes info on steamships, railway travel, music, industrialization, art, interior design), gardening (after all, Andrew is a landscape architect, so I needed to know all about the current styles for garden design, orangeries, conservatories, ornamental gardens vs. kitchen gardens, and more), and “the country house” which contains pages and pages of snippets and notes from a few books I got to make sure that I depicted a Victorian country house—how it ran, who ran it, what the daily schedule was like, what a country party was like, and more—to make sure I wasn’t just rewriting my Regency settings and culture but that I was getting the details unique to the early Victorian age. (I also have pages of research for seamstressing/design and 1840s/50s medical practice and other info I needed in the section for An Honest Heart).

One of the first bits of research I did for these books, long before I even started writing them, was on steamship travel and how to get Kate and Christopher from New York to England—how long it would take, what kind of ship it would be, how much it cost, where it put in once it arrived in England, how they would be transported from there (Liverpool) to Oxford (which meant also researching the railway system in England in 1851). I did this research while writing the initial synopsis of the story. Before I even knew what the full plot would be or even most of the main conflicts, I knew exactly how Kate would get to England, where Andrew would meet her, and how long they’d be confined to a compartment on a train together. I did other research as I worked on the synopsis and proposal. And even more research as I wrote the first three sample chapters.

Did I have all the information I’d need before I started writing? No way. There wasn’t a writing day that went by on which I didn’t need to stop and look something up—even if it was just to figure out if a word I wanted to use was in use back then (being able to use the search function on all of Dickens’s and Gaskell’s novels on Project Gutenberg made my life so much easier in this respect!) or to look at the layout of the Crystal Palace, duplicated from the original tourist booklet, to figure out where the biggest displays of fabrics were (upper floor) or where the Australian/New South Wales display was (ground floor near the south entrance, behind Canada and the West Indies and beside the sculpture garden). In fact, it was reading a tidbit in an article about the Great Exhibition while doing research on it after first coming up with the idea of using it as a setting (for a different series) that led me to making Neal in An Honest Heart Australian.

So do your research—you’ll probably find your characters more interesting, your setting richer, and your storyworld more vibrant from what you learn before you start writing. And it will save you tons of revision later on down the road.

Get Set: Getting to Know Your Setting #ReadySetWrite

Monday, February 9, 2015

#ReadySetWrite: Get Set--Getting to Know Your Setting | KayeDacus.comLast week, we discussed backstory and the importance of knowing the backstory of your setting, in addition to your characters. But now it’s time to get to know your setting even more intimately.

Getting to Know Your Setting

1. Your Story World: Where does your story take place? Go from the broad (Planet Earth) to the narrow (the Woodbine neighborhood of Nashville) to the specific (77 Elberta Street).

The diverse architecture in downtown Nashville (source)

The diverse architecture in downtown Nashville (source)

2. Houses, Buildings, Architectural Styles: This is easier if you’re using a real setting vs. a fictional setting. But it’s still important to do research on the correct terms for the types of buildings/houses and their architectural styles, even if you’ve lived in the place where your story is set your entire life. A neighborhood developed in the 1880s isn’t going to be filled with Craftsman style houses; nor is one built in the 1980s going to be filled with mid-century modern styles. One of the things that makes a story seem more immediate is detail. What detail can you discover about the buildings in your setting that you can include in your notes WHETHER OR NOT YOU USE IT IN YOUR ACTUAL STORY?

3. Landscapes, Climates: What does your story world look like? What are the geographic features? What is the weather like? No, you’re not necessarily going to include all of this in your story, but you, the author, need to know as much about this as possible so that you don’t have it snowing on Thanksgiving in Brownsville, Texas. If you’re creating a fantasy/sci-fi world, this is of VITAL importance to know before you start writing.

My rough, hand-sketched map of Bonneterre

My rough, hand-sketched map of Bonneterre

4. Maps: Either collect maps (you can use the PrtScr/Print Screen button on your PC keyboard to capture an image of your screen and then paste it as an image in PowerPoint or Publisher, crop away whatever you don’t need (double click on the image and then the crop button will be on the toolbar), and the save it as an image you can use anywhere else (right click on the image and select Save as Picture…). Make sure to save it as a .jpg file for universality of use. If you’re creating your own setting (real world or fantasy/sci-fi), create your own maps, because that’s the best way to remember where you put those houses/buildings from #2.

5. Terminology: Is there a unique terminology to your setting? For example, when I was writing the Ransome series, I had to keep lists of all of the different parts of the ships and sails. Be specific with these (schooner rather than ship; jigger staysail instead of sail, etc.).

6. Historical Background: What’s the history of your storyworld? For those of us writing in either real or fictional cities set in familiar countries (like the US), this isn’t as hard as for those creating their own countries/worlds. But it is important to know why, for example, a person of color might be treated differently in Selma, Alabama, than in Detroit, Michigan, even in the year 2015.

7. Culture and Customs: What are the unique cultures and customs of your story world? “Nashville” has one connotation to the outside world, and a very different one to those of us who live here (and to those who live in different areas of Nashville. What’s culture/custom for me living in Woodbine might be completely different from culture/custom for a 20something hipster living in downtown. What festivals and other celebrations take place in your city? (And what does it mean when someone in Nashville calls CMA Fest “Fan Fair”—or even CMApocalypse?) How do people greet each other? Do they make eye contact and speak with strangers (Nashville), or do they avoid it if at all possible (Washington DC)?

8. Language, Accent, and Regional Slang: Whether real-world or fantasy/sci-fi, people are going to have different vernacular based on their region, their local culture/customs, and their backgrounds.

9. Social/Government Organization: More important for fictional/otherworldly story settings, but it’s good to know what would happen if a character breaks a social taboo or a law (and knowing what those social taboos and laws are).

10. Daily Life: This includes fashion/dress/style, manners, diet, calendar, customs, etc. Again, this is less consuming if you’re writing contemporary/real-world settings, but still something everyone needs to consider when developing your settings.

11. IMAGES, IMAGES, IMAGES: Collect images of settings that inspire, floorplans/images from real estate sites of your characters’ homes, images of the city or countryside or landscape, and so on. This is a great time to employ Pinterest—and you can use a private board if you don’t want to share with the rest of the world just yet.

Learn more about developing your setting here.

Get Set: Picking Your Point of View and Viewpoint Characters #ReadySetWrite

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

#ReadySetWrite: Get Set--Picking Your Point of View and Viewpoint Characters | KayeDacus.comNow that you know the backstories of your characters and storyworld, it’s time to start preparing to choose in what style and in what viewpoints your story will be told.

Picking Your Point of View
“Point of View” or POV is quite often the term used to identify which characters’ heads the reader is allowed into in a story. However, we’re using it in the more technical, grammatical definition today.

In order to set your story up to get ready to write it, there are three parts of POV you must decide upon:

  1. Person: First (I, me, my), Second (you, your, yours), Third (he, she, his, hers, they, theirs).
  2. Omniscience: Omniscient (using a narrator, even if it’s an invisible/god-like narrator), Limited (camping out in just one viewpoint character’s head per scene, the narrative is in the character’s voice, not a “narrator’s”), Objective (more of a journalistic style—“just the facts, ma’am”—not seen in fiction often).
  3. Tense: Present (action is happening in the here-and-now), Past/Active (verbs are past tense, but because this is the most common form of storytelling, it still seems to be immediate action), Past/Passive (usually a form of the “be” verb plus a gerund—word ending in -ing—or a form of the “have” verb + past-tense verb).

You can read more about these, and the vast array of combinations thereof here.

Must you know what POV you’re going to use for your story before you start writing? It’s a good idea to have a grasp of what’s accepted/expected in your genre—and the example I always give here is that in romance, the accepted and expected (by readers) POV is 3rd Person, Limited, Past/Active with the heroine and the hero being viewpoint characters. But since you’ll be writing multiple drafts, if you want to play with POV to see what works best for your story, please feel free to experiment. However, you should know how to do the POV you choose well and you should know the guidelines and conventions for it from studying craft-of-writing books, attending courses, and extensive reading of published books using that POV.

Picking Your Viewpoint Characters
No discussion of Point of View/Viewpoint is complete without talking about our characters. Whether you’re an outliner, loose-plotter, or seat-of-the-pantster, knowing who the key viewpoint characters of your story are before writing it is very important. Yes, this can change after a draft is finished—case in point, in the first draft of Ransome’s Honor, I had five viewpoint characters: Julia, William, Julia’s mother, Sir Drake, and (after the halfway point) Charlotte. Once I wrote the ending and learned what actually happened in my own story, I not only dropped one of the five viewpoints, but changed Julia’s mother to her aunt, Lady Augusta. I also introduced Charlotte’s viewpoint much earlier. That’s the benefit of allowing yourself to write a first draft—knowing that you might (and probably will) go back and make significant changes in subsequent drafts.

So when you’re in the composing process, you don’t have to feel locked into the viewpoints you’ve chosen . . . you just need to make sure that if you add a viewpoint or drop one in the first draft, you go back and weave it in (or out) more thoroughly in the revision process.

The first question to ask yourself when it comes to determining your viewpoint characters is: Whose story am I telling? In a romance novel, this is easy—it’s the story of the hero and the heroine as they fall in love with each other. In a detective/P.I. novel, it’s probably best to go with 1st Person—the viewpoint of the one solving the crime. However, even though these are usually the case, you can’t always force your stories to fit into that mold.

Next, which characters have important information to reveal to the reader that cannot be done without getting inside their heads? This is a tricky question—because when we’re first starting out writing, there may seem to be lots of characters who have important things to reveal to the reader, even if it’s just for one short paragraph. But as we read more, study more, and write more, we’ll get a better feel for what really is important and what isn’t. Typically, if it’s only one scene’s worth of information to be revealed, it’s probably not that important in the grand scheme of things—or it can most likely be revealed in another manner without dipping into that character’s viewpoint for just one scene. If you’re not sure, make a list of the characters in your story and try dividing them up into three categories: walk-ons (may not even have a speaking role, may or may not need to be named, might have one or two lines of dialogue, but never appear again); secondary characters (are along for pretty much the whole journey, are somehow connected to the development of the story—but not important enough to have a viewpoint); and viewpoint, or main, characters (those whose story you’re telling). If you’re coming up with too many main characters ask the next question . . .

Which characters’ internal journeys affect the direction, conflict, climax, and resolution of the story? If you’re giving a character a viewpoint just to reveal information to the reader, they may not actually be a viewpoint character, they may be a secondary character. If you still end up with multiple viewpoint characters, ask . . .

Do all viewpoint characters’ story arcs tie in to the main plot of the novel? Does each viewpoint character’s storyline somehow intersect with and/or affect or influence the main plot of the story? Do the characters’ lives intersect with each other? Does each viewpoint character’s storyline wrap up at the end and/or tie in to the ending? If you have multiple viewpoint storylines going on, and they don’t tie in with each other by the end of the novel, what you have are two plots—two stories that should be separated from each other.

How often does a character’s viewpoint appear? (This may not be apparent until after you’ve completed your first draft.) If you have a viewpoint character who has only a few scenes scattered throughout a 300-page novel, it may be time to consider relegating that character to a secondary role and finding a way to incorporate what’s revealed in his/her scenes to one of the major characters—UNLESS there is a very compelling reason to only have a few, such as it’s the villain’s viewpoint or something like that which serves to up the ante and increase the conflict and/or suspense.

Finally, which character has the most to gain/lose in each scene? With your synopsis/treatment/write-up of your premise, you should know at this point what many of the major scenes will be with the conflicts that happen in your story. Examine those and ask these questions: Who will be the most embarrassed by what’s about to happen? Who has a secret agenda? Whose heart is going to be racing? Who’s going to be ducking around the corner out of sight and overhear something he/she shouldn’t? That will help you choose the correct viewpoint character for each scene. But it isn’t foolproof. If a scene feels flat to you as you’re writing it, or to your crit partners or editor later, try it from another character’s viewpoint and see if it changes things.

Choosing which viewpoints to use in your story is ultimately your decision. And when you’re writing your first draft, you need to trust your gut and go with what feels right—but allow yourself the freedom to make the decision to demote a viewpoint character to secondary or promote a secondary to viewpoint halfway through. The easiest way to do this is to just keep writing with the change made—and then revise in the second draft stage. But if you just can’t do that, go back and rewrite just the scenes that would be affected by the change—don’t try to completely revise/rewrite your entire draft to that point. You’ll get stuck in an endless loop of revision and never finish it.

Most of all—have fun exploring your characters’ inner lives and conflicts, both internal and external. Lose yourself in them and their world. This prep time—and the time you spend writing your first draft—should be filled with the joy of discovery, not the agony of tedium and make-work.

For more on Point of View/Viewpoint, see the Make POV Work For You series.

Get Set: Developing Your Backstory #ReadySetWrite

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

#ReadySetWrite: Get Set--Developing Your Backstory | KayeDacus.comNow that you have your premise, you know (most of) your characters are, you know where/when your setting is, it’s time to start getting set—setting yourself up to be ready to actually write.

Developing Character Backstories
I’ve mentioned before on the blog that one of the first things I do when I get a story idea is sit down and write a summary—call it a synopsis or a treatment, what it is, in reality, is going through the steps I discussed in the “Get Ready” part of this series. Once I knew that much, if it was something I decided to work on immediately (and not set aside because I was already on contracted deadline for something else), I sat down and started writing another set of summaries—this time of my characters. Who were they? Where did they come from? What were they doing a month, a week, an hour before the moment they step into the story? What will they be doing after their role in the story ends?

This is known as giving your characters extended lives. Just as you exist before and after the few weeks you might spend caught up in some project or conflict, your characters need an existence beyond the scope of your story in order to come across as real people, rather than just two-dimensional caricatures who vanish like a puff of smoke as soon as their role in the story is over.

This also gives you a chance to determine your characters’ connections—with each other and with your storyworld at large. Someone isn’t just “the mayor” of the city. Maybe she’s married to the fire chief. Maybe their oldest daughter is the star athlete at the high school. Madam Mayor may have gone to the large state university a few towns over—and almost gotten expelled due to a sorority prank which lots of money from her parents to the school managed to fix . . . but she’s been trying to keep it quiet and live it down ever since, and because of that, she’s dedicated her life to public service and volunteerism. Not because she enjoys it, but because she feels guilty. So she’s now connected to: the city government, the fire department, the local high school, the university in the other town, a sorority, and any number of organizations with which she volunteers—and she’s connected with people in each of those places. People who may help create conflict in her life (someone from her college days who’s now blackmailing her for contracts from the city government?) or help support her through those times (her best friend who’s the head of a charity for victims of domestic violence, who may be the first to notice the strain in Madam Mayor from being blackmailed). And if the head of the domestic violence shelter is your main character, not the mayor, imagine what kind of conflict this will create for your heroine while she’s also trying to deal with the main conflict of the story!

See how extending the characters’ lives work in coming up with more and more ideas? Not only will this help in making your characters more dynamic and more relatable to readers, it weaves nicely into your synopsis/story summary in helping to generate ideas for more/new conflicts to enrich your story.

Developing Your Setting’s Backstory

But my story is set in New York City in the present day. I don’t need to “develop” my setting. It already exists.

Yes, but—what about the place(s) where your characters live? Their neighborhoods, their homes, the places they frequent? Are you going to use real stores, restaurants, apartment buildings, street names? Or are you going to make them up? How will your characters move through the setting (car, public transit, train, horse and buggy)? How does the environment in which your characters find themselves affect AND effect who your characters are, how they dress, how they interact with the setting and with others? People living in northern Minnesota in late January aren’t going to go for a stroll outside for a romantic chat, while others living on the Alabama Gulf Coast might.

What are environmental obstacles that might create conflict for your characters? Anything from weather to transportation to the people who live and/or work around them.

For those using a fictional setting—whether real-world or sci-fi/fantasy—now is the time for world-building. I hope to do a more in-depth series on that later this year because there’s so much that goes into this, especially in otherworldly applications. In real-world fictional settings, we at least have some absolutes that we don’t have to worry about—gravity, continents, water, food, etc. Our readers are already familiar with Earth-based life and how it’s lived. People writing sci-fi or fantasy have a much bigger task here in creating everything almost from scratch.

In both real and fictional settings, some of the most important “backstory” details to work out ahead of time are:

  • In what season(s) does your story take place. How does the weather have an effect on what happens in your story? (If at all?)
  • What is the culture of your setting? What makes the locale you’re using unique? What are the local customs—local celebrations, festivals, way of life? How can you incorporate those into your characters and story?
  • What are the geographic elements that will/could have an impact on your plot and characters?
  • How does your setting (including locale, customs, weather, landscape) create a mood for your story?
  • WHY are your characters in this specific setting?

Obviously those are just the tip of the iceburg. But freewriting about your setting (along with copious amounts of research) will lead you to other important factors you might not have even considered.

Freewriting Your Backstory
One of the things to keep in mind when working on backstories—have fun with this and don’t feel like you’re locking yourself into anything. Remember, we’re still in the “get set” portion of this exercise. You’re not actually writing your story yet—your simply exploring ideas.

Anything you write during this part of preparation can change once you start writing your first draft—and you should allow for that to happen. If something you’ve come up with in backstory doesn’t work, whether it’s in your characters or setting—change it. But if it’s drastic, you might want to do the backstory freewriting exercise again, incorporating this new aspect, to see what other parts of the backstory it might affect and change.

Freewriting backstory this way should feel organic. If you want to write it in present tense, first person, do it. If you want to write it in third person, past tense, that’s your choice. Bullet lists, circles, Venn diagrams . . . whatever works best for you to churn up the creative ideas for your characters and setting and to generate new ideas for your story.


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