Sorry I've been scarce, folks. Real life snarled this time instead of the usual techno tangles, but all is well and back to what passes for normal around here.
The winner for the VB Party Left Behind Goody Bag is Monica, who should e-mail me at LynnViehl@aol.com with your full name and ship-to address.
Virtual Workshop #4:
Extending Your Writing Range
I. The Call of Writing
Anyone can be a writer, but the journey to becoming a writer is different for everyone. Some writers seem to be born with a pen in hand, while others find writing like an oasis after years of searching for a creative outlet. Many writers are the children of other writers, either born to them or devoted fans inspired by their work. Avid readers make the leap from loving books to wanting to create their own. Still others fall into writing as the result of a happy accident: a school assignment that flips an inner switch, or joining NaNoWriMo on a lark, or throwing some ideas and words together on a boring, rainy afternoon.
How you became a writer doesn't matter, and neither does what you write. All writers who are born or made or accidentally fall into the gig all share the same calling: storytelling through words.
II. Story as Mind Cuisine
Because my parents are from the northern U.S. and moved to the extreme southern U.S. when I was very young, I was raised on a hodge-podge of Northern and Southern cuisine: New England boiled dinner with hushpuppies and Key lime pie; pancakes with maple syrup, grits and grapefruit we picked from the tree in the yard. Hanging out with Latina friends from school I picked up a love for Cuban coffee, black beans and rice and mariquitas. My chef stepdad taught me to set aside my mother's Crisco, Ragu and seasoned salt and experiment with olive oil, plum tomatoes and fresh herbs. My military years added French, German, Japanese, Korean, English, Thai and dormitory food (anything that can be made in one pan on a hot plate) to my repetoire.
Writing novels allows us to explore the cuisine of the mind. Most writers start out with a favorite, comfort genre that feeds their imagination. They come to know that genre so well they don't even have to think about measuring the ingredients. This comfort can make every other genre seem a bit foreign in comparison. Combined with a (to me) very weird attitude around the industry that writers can only write in one genre, it often works to inhibit writers from striking out and trying new things.
I was fortunate in my writing education. When I began to devour books as a kid, I didn't know what genre was. I went to the library, started at the "A" author shelf in fiction and began picking up books. I checked out the ones that grabbed me, read them, and went back for more every week until I hit the end of the "Z" section. Reading other authors' books was my only writing education, but it was a great one. Wide-variety reading broadened my horizons and helped me to see the structure of novels versus the genre label they were slapped with.
Any writer who wants to extend their writing range should not be inhibited by the comfort genre or the opinions of limited imaginations. You don't have to give up writing in your favorite genre, either. Just because you try making stirfry now and then doesn't mean you have to stop making spaghetti and meatballs.
III. Novel Recipe
All fiction novels begin with the same two ingredients: characters and conflict. Every book you read has characters who encounter conflict and an account of how they handle it. The who, what, where, when and how determine genre, but a novel about a private investigator hired to solve a series of murders is no different than a book about a cowboy who must chase after his runaway pregnant bride. You put characters with conflict, and it leads to an end result, or
Character + Conflict = Conclusion
Alone, each ingredient does nothing. Characters need something to do. Conflict needs someone to resolve it. Throwing them together in the novel skillet and turning up the story heat makes them change each other; the character is affected by the conflict, the conflict is affected by the character. Neither come out of that skillet unchanged by the other.
As a young writer I completely stayed away from writing stories and novels with male protagonists. My reason? I thought boys were dumb.
Once I got through puberty, I still shied away from male protags, until I saw many female authors had written books with male protagonists. I attacked my inhibition by reading novels written by male authors in order to compare the differences in my writing style and theirs.
Call it getting in touch with my masculine side, but once I had done enough of that I began to catch myself "being female" when I was writing in a male POV. Eventually I got up the nerve to write a couple of novels with male protagonists. It was definitely different, but not quite as scary as I'd imagined. I just had to think differently; step outside myself and tell the story from the character's POV instead of my own.
A common trap writers fall into is the need to make their protagonists mirror images of themselves. There is a certain vicarious thrill involved in the author making the protag a fictional identical twin. The author doesn't have to imagine what the protag will do, they already know. They don't have to write outside their personal comfort zones, either. Problem is, the author ends up with cookie-cutter protagonists.
I combat this by seeing myself as the protagonist's biographer versus their RL twin. Whenever possible, I deliberately create characters who are very different from me physically, mentally and situationally; the more so the better. It allows me to observe and record rather than steer and impose my will on a protag who is just me in a fictional mask.
V. Practical exercises
Here are some methods that may help extend your range:
1. Try writing a scene or chapter from your WIP from the POV of a character in the story other than your protagonist (I did this by writing Illumination, which is the story of StarDoc totally from Duncan Reever's POV.)
2. Set your usual story in a different place, time or circumstance. Fond of writing cowboy/runaway bride romances? Set one on an alien world 500 years in the future. Have a penchant for private investigators? Have yours investigate a soldier being court martialed for sedition during the American Revolution. Into family sagas? Make the family slaves, and chronicle what happens to them during the collapse of the Roman Empire.
3. Test drive different types of protagonists. Try writing a story from the POV of a victim, or the antagonist, or a young child, or the family pet. If all your protagonists are of one gender, switch to the opposite gender. Give your protagonist a significant handicap that deprives them of one of the five senses. Write a protagonist whose situation, philosophies or lifestyle are completely opposite your own.
4. Take a classic fiction story or myth and write it in a modern setting. Romeo and Juliet, Pride and Prejudice and Taming of the Shrew have all been updated into modern stories; how about your version of Pygmalion, Beowulf, Les Miserables or Snow White?
5. Pick a famous figure from history and write a story about one day in their life. The day can be an ordinary day, their birthday, their wedding day, or the day before they die.
VI. No Limits
Whatever attitude our peers and the industry have, the first person to impose restrictions on a writer is the internal fraidycat. We decide at the keyboard what we feel we can or cannot do, and we're always our own worst censors. So the next time you approach a story idea and something inside you says You can't write that, tell something to shut up and write it anyway. You may be surprised to find out that there really are no limits to what you can do on the page.
Post your thoughts, comments and questions about writing range in comments to this post by midnight EST on Monday, July 31, 2006, and you'll have a chance at winning the final Mega Left Behind Goody Bag: signed copies of my S.L. Viehl hardcover novel Blade Dancer and all three of my Lynn Viehl Darkyn novels in paperback, an unsigned hardcover copy of Talyn by Holly Lisle and paperback copies of Love's Potion by Monica Jackson, Moon Called by Patricia Briggs, Tiger Eye, Shadow Touch and Red Heart of Jade by Marjorie M. Liu, Threads of Malice by Tamara Siler Jones, The Attraction by Douglas Clegg, I See You and Last Girl Dancing by Holly Lisle, Dark Lover and Lover Eternal by J.R. Ward, Hunting the Hunter by Shiloh Walker, as well as a hardcover copy of The Writer's Book of Matches and Flow Chart Maker Software (good for outlining, mind mapping and organizing), all packed in a red and beige canvas tote from Books-A-Million. I'll draw one name from everyone who participates and send you the goodies; giveaway is open to everyone on the planet, even if you've won something here at PBW in the past.
Peder Hill's The Basic Three Act Structure
The Elements of Fiction.