Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Monday, October 20, 2014

Outlander by Diana Gabladon: Read, Chapter 10

Welcome back to this read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, where we examine a great story for insights into how to write a successful novel. To catch up or review previous parts of this read, click here.



Chapter 10: The Oath-taking

Summary: Having hidden away food and supplies, Claire finally decides it’s time to make her escape. She’s hoping that, with most of the MacKenzie men drunk because of the Gathering, her chances will be good.

However, while sneaking into the stable to steal a horse, she trips over something on the floor. That something turns out to be Jamie, who’s hiding from the MacKenzies because he has no intention of swearing an oath to Colum and thus forsaking his own clan.

While he dusts Claire off from her tumble into the hay, he admonishes her for her foolish decision to escape that night when Colum has guards all over the place. Instead, he escorts her back to the castle. But before they reach the safety of the indoors, several men spring upon them. One grabs Claire and two wrestle Jamie into submission. As it turns out, they don’t intend to give Jamie the option of avoiding the oath.

They haul the two off to another room where Jamie is forced to don MacKenzie garments. He tells Claire to go, and she does. Except, rather than slip off completely, she sneaks into the minstrel’s gallery to spy out how things go.

Writer Comments: For this particular scene, aside from the fact of noting that Claire and Jamie are apparently incapable of disentangling their fates, I want to take a look at clues authors drop for their readers.

The biggest one in this scene is when Jamie mentions his clan’s motto to Claire, Je suis prest, which means “I am ready.” He shares this tidbit, drawing a comparison to the MacKenzie motto, Luceo non uro, which means “I shine not burn.” Naturally, you’d either have to be highly versed in Scottish clans or fortunate enough to happen to know these two mottos to identify Jamie’s clan. But if you’re not so endowed, Gabaldon gives a proactive reader all they need to solve the mystery of Jamie’s true birth. I happened to look up the clan that bears that motto: Fraser of Lovat.

But there’s an additional dimension relayed in this scene. Repeatedly, the men who accost Jamie refer to him as the laird’s nephew. Until now, Jamie’s exact relationship to Colum had been unclear. Now, we know it with much greater clarity. Jamie isn’t just some poor fellow Scot Colum decided to extend charity to; he’s family. However, at no point does Gabaldon explain this. At no point does Claire analyze it. Rather, Gabaldon slips it in and lets her readers do the work. In actuality, this is a great compliment to her readers because Gabaldon declares via her lack of having to explain that she trusts we’re smart enough to put the puzzle together.

Summary: Claire finds the gallery already filled with the women of the castle who have gathered to watch the ceremony. At the oath-taking, Dougal and Colum are clearly surprised by Jamie’s apparent willingness to participate, and Colum looks less than happy about it. However, when it comes to Jamie’s turn, unlike the other men who drop to a knee and swear, Jamie remains upright and promises friendship and goodwill. He promises obedience while on MacKenzie lands too. Claire half expects him to get knifed for breaking the trend, but Colum accepts Jamie’s words. As a result, the tension in the hall drops dramatically.

After the ceremony, the women sneak off. The men are so drunk, it isn’t safe for women to wander the halls. However, Claire can’t quite remember how to get back to her room from that part of the castle. A group of men come after her, and Dougal rescues her. However, he exacts a price before releasing her, a kiss.

Writer Comments: There’s something noble to be said for how Jamie handled the oath-taking. Him becoming a MacKenzie, especially when he didn’t want to, would have weakened him. There are of course instances where joining his uncle’s clan might have seemed appropriate, but not this time. But Jamie holding true to himself makes him all the more heroic.

Summary: The next day, the men go hunting a boar in the mist shrouded woods. Claire is called to the hunting party to tend a wounded man. While helping him, she hears another cry out and rushes to his aid.

She finds the man bleeding out through a leg wound, which she quickly tourniquets. Dougal holds the man, trying to soothe him while Claire finishes her inspection. Next, she spots a stomach wound, the man’s intestines pierced. It’s a wound the man has no hope of surviving.

Dougal looks up at her a mouths a question, wondering if the man will live. Claire shakes her head, so Dougal unties the tourniquet, providing the man a much cleaner and quicker death than that which he’d face if Claire staunched the bleeding and let the stomach wound fester and kill him slowly and painfully.

They carry the body of the man and the boar which Dougal kills back to the castle. Dougal catches Claire before she slips off to tend her first patient. He states that she’s seen men die by violence before, his tone accusing. She admits that she has, many of them.

Writer Comments: This scene is quite sad. The emotion and the presence of death keeps the tension high, but it’s the twist at the end that makes it interesting. Dougal’s realiztion that Claire has much experience with men dying by violence is a twist, a hook at the end. You will generally see advice that every chapter should end with a twist or bit of intrigue to pull readers into the next chapter. But this doesn’t just count for chapters. A writer should aim for this with every scene.

Further, the pairing of this scene with the previous scene highlights Dougal. I do not know Gabaldon’s ultimate plans for Dougal, but he’s clearly going to have an interesting relationship with Claire. First he kisses her, then he helps her send a man off to his death in the most merciful way available. In a way, it’s an intimate scene, though a ghastly one. It makes me curious about Dougal and makes him a far more interesting character. While Jamie is clearly the love interest, Gabaldon obviously realizes a crucial fact about supporting characters: they to must be fascinating and deep. Otherwise, they cannot be believable.

Summary: The next day is the games. They keep Claire extremely busy with injured person after injured person coming to her surgery for treatment. At long last, the games end and she’s able to step outside for fresh air. She goes to the stables, thinking to apologize once more to Jamie for getting him involved in the oath-taking and to find herself some nonhuman, nonbleeding company for a while. On the way, she contemplates a new plan of escape.

However, in the stables she finds Jamie and Dougal talking. When she tries to retreat, apologizing for interrupting, Dougal insists she stay. He explains that, in two days time, he’ll be leaving, and he intends to take Jamie and Claire with him. They’ll go as far as Fort William, in addition to handling general business amongst the clan members that could not make the Gathering. At Fort William, Dougal says they might find aid in helping Claire get to her family in France. She knows this is a veiled excuse to use the fort’s resources to help the MacKenzie identify who she really is. However, as the journey will get her safely much closer to the standing stones, she readily accepts.

Writer Comments: So Claire is about to embark on a journey with the two men who can most readily complicate her life, aside from Colum. She’s wary of Dougal after his forced kiss. While Jamie is clearly a friend, there are already suggestions from others that they’re together.

An author must always devise new means to increase tension, especially tension that builds on what has already been established in the story. Gabaldon does this well here. She’s setting up to draw together several threads of tension: Jamie, Dougal, the nearness of Claire’s potential escape, the MacKenzie quest to discover her real identity, and perhaps a certain British officer ancestor of her husband’s. Gabaldon introduced all these elements earlier, so that weave seamlessly together and already have reader investment.

This is also the conclusion of Part Two. While many books do not utilize breaking a story into parts like this, if a story does, Gabaldon’s example is a good one. She determines part breaks based on a significant shift in the story.

Thank you for joining me for this chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, swing back by on Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Importance of Knowing the Genre

Right now, I am reading a wonderful book called Angels in the Darkness: A Family Triumph over Hitler and World War II Berlin: 1935-1949 by Lisa Farringer Parker. It’s a true story of the hardships and victories of Jutta Bolle and her family as they struggle to stay alive through the rise of Hitler, the war, and the Russian occupation. It’s an excellent read, but if I didn’t know it was based on a true story and, thus, written much like a diary, my authorial temptation to examine every book for good plot structure and other elements might get in the way of savoring this read.

Genre plays a crucial role for both readers and writers. Simply knowing the genre of a story can alter a reader’s experience. A reader who usually enjoys romance might be greatly disappointed in a book like The Soldier’s Wife by Margaret Leroy, which has a romance and a good one at that, but which does not adhere to romance genre expectations. Regardless, it’s still a great read.

Each genre comes with expectations and tropes. Some genres must adhere to certain characteristics to qualify as that genre: romances must have happy endings, fantasy must have something outside our reality. Some genres are expected to following a strong plot structure and others, like literary fiction, are given more leeway. Regardless, all genres come with reader expectations that influence their experience and enjoyment of a story.

Thus, as a reader, it’s helpful to know the genre of the book you pick up. Often this isn’t a challenge at all as you’ve gone to a specific spot in the bookstore to find your latest read. But sometimes, if you get the book another way, say from a friend, the genre is not always immediately clear. If you have a strong preference for certain genres and their tropes, it can save you grief to know whether or not the book you’re about to read fits your expectations.

Conversely, writers must keep genre in mind because of how it influences readers’ experiences and purchasing choices. It also is a necessary tool for booksellers and publishers to be able to organize stories. The first things agents and editors want to know in a query is usually genre and word count.

Now, I know some writers may hiss in derision at the notion of allowing genre to have such power and influence. After all, aren’t we all supposed to write a story as it is rather than trying to make it fit a mold? Yes, in many ways that’s true, and I highly recommend that approach while writing the first draft. However, genre is an inescapable dimension of the publishing industry. When it comes to consecutive drafts, querying publishers or preparing a book for self-publishing, and marketing that book, genre is essential. It is one of the first things a reader usually wants to know about a book.

Be aware of genre, how it influences you as a reader, and how it impacts stories as a writer. It’s much like grammar, an inescapable element of modern fiction, but once you understand the rules, you can then knowingly and wisely break them, fully aware of the potential impact.

Be sure to swing back by on Monday for the next chapter of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and more writing tips.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Read, Chapter 9

Welcome back to this read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here we enjoy a great book and examine the techniques Gabaldon uses to improve our own writing.

To catch up or review previous parts of this read, click here.



Chapter 9: The Gathering

Summary: Castle Leoch, and with them Claire, prepare for the coming Gathering, an important event of which Claire is still largely ignorant. However, she helps other castle girls pick cherries and apricots in preparation to feed so many. She works in the garden, sometimes in the kitchen, and, when needed, as castle doctor.

On her first expedition into the orchards, she asks one of the girls she has become friendly with how many come to the Gatherings. The girl isn’t certain, but she figures it’ll be more than the ten score men that came the last time Leoch hosted a Gathering, plus their families.

Claire frequents the stables and the impromptu fair set up for the event in hopes of catching a horse and a chance to escape.

Writer Comments: This scene accomplishes two primary functions: scene setting and the passage of time. Let’s look at those separately.

Scene Setting:

The Gathering is clearing an important even in the story, and based on the fact that the next section of the book follows it, I’m assuming it will be a significant turning point for Claire. Thus, Gabaldon needs to establish a shift in setting. No, Leoch isn’t going anywhere, at least not at this point in history, but the castle undergoes a change in atmosphere, inhabitants, and focus. Establishing this through a brief scene like this builds anticipation for the coming big event and helps establish the look, feel, scent, taste, and atmosphere readers will need to fully experience the coming events.

To accomplish this, Gabaldon provides rich, textured exposition. She utilizes all five senses heavily, and this keeps the scene from being boring. She talks of sweet cherries and apricots, both of which I can almost taste while I read. She mentions smoke, which I can smell. She talks of wet leaves in misty morning, which I can feel on my skin. Claire has a brief conversation with a girl at the orchard, providing sound. Activity is described from work in the garden, preparing meat, carting in ale and flour, picking fruit. All this provides a sense of motion, which also safeguards against dullness.

The Passage of Time:

No author should write everything that happens during the course of a story. That would make the narrative drag on in long boring stretches. By the time a reader reached an interesting part, assuming he were patient enough to get that far, his brain would be so dulled that the impact and excitement of the interesting scene would lose its power. This necessitates the skipping or summarizing of time and information at strategic points in a story. This is when “telling” has its uses.

In this instance, Gabaldon quickly summarizes how Claire passes her days. Since it’s brief, she doesn’t risk becoming boring. Then she utilizes a technique that helps with the scene setting I mentioned above: motion.

Motion automatically carries with it the passage of time. It’s a basic rule of the universe. The fourth dimension is time. If something moves, we understand time to have passed. So by describing various activities in progress, Gabaldon automatically creates a sense of time’s passage.

Yet she does not linger on details. She includes rich verbs, nouns, and carefully chosen adjectives to provide texture and interest. Because she employs such vivid language, even when she “tells” what’s happening, it seems more like “showing.” The combination of vividness and motion creates the sense of action playing out before the reader and thus being “shown.” This is really when the two concepts of show and tell blend in a productive way.

So when a writer needs to summarize and show the passage of time, employing textured, colorful language, motion, and being brief can keep transition scenes like this interesting and effective.

Summary: On another fruit collecting expedition, Claire spots a useful mushroom and begins collecting it. However, a woman name Geillis Duncan, stops her, claiming the mushrooms are poisonous. Claire explains she knows this, but that the mushrooms are good for stopping bleeding once dried and applied topically.

This initiates the beginnings of a friendship. Geillis, a wealth of knowledge concerning herbs and healing herself, shows Claire places where certain herbs and mushrooms grow. She’s cynical but cheerful, and though she frequently teases Claire, Claire finds her a pleasant companion.

But Geillis isn’t just a purveyor of medicinal lore. She’s a gossip as well. One of the juicy tidbits she shares with Claire is the belief that Colum’s son is not actually his. She and many others claim the boy’s actual father is none other than Jamie MacTavish.

Writer Comments: Geillis is fun to read. She adds an energy to the page that no other character thus far has managed. She must have been fun to write as well. In fact, that’s the secret to making characters fun to read. They first have to be enjoyable to write.

Beyond that, Geillis provides another mouthpiece for sharing information with readers. Whether Jamie is really the boy’s father or not, it’s clearly an important belief Gabaldon must get across. I presume it will come into play for Claire later on. Regardless, as before, we have another minor character providing key information, but she isn’t just a talking head. She has personality and provides more to the story than mere knowledge and rumor. She clearly offers Claire the possibility of friendship and a peer. In a world where she’s very much the outsider, such might become precious to Claire. At the very least, it’s a need all readers can understand. We get the idea of loneliness and the need to fill out lives with those we enjoy.

But notice that Gabaldon does not spend pages and pages examining Claire’s loneliness. I believe she has only used the word alone, or some variant, once. A character does not need to philosophize about his inner working for an author to imply their existence. Emotions and mental states can be demonstrated in all sorts of indirect and powerful, though sometimes subtle, ways. Claire is constantly reminded of her alienness to this world. She’s cheerful about her predicament and naturally leans toward optimism, which means she’s unlikely to brood or monologue about her troubles. But Gabaldon uses situations and the contrast between Claire and this new world to demonstrate her inner emotions. She uses action in how Claire interacts with the people of Castle Leoch to reveal inner conflict. Only occasionally does she resort to exposition to explain Claire. Remember that navel gazing is not a requirement for revealing a character’s inner struggle.

Now, let’s take a step sideways to Jamie. Why does Gabaldon reveal this gossip about him now? It accomplishes a whole score of things, but they all come down to two things: they add conflict and they give Jamie greater value in the stakes of the story and in the other characters’ eyes.

Like in gardening, conflict must be planted like seeds before it can grow and reach satisfying maturity. And like a seedling or older plant, an author must water conflict by adding to it, by revealing more dimensions of it, and by increasing the stakes of the story, thus the value of what that conflict threatens or impacts. As to the exact conflict Gabaldon has in mind, I don’t know, but the mere possibility of Jamie being the father of the laird’s heir is enough to make it interesting. It’s enough to create delicious complications for other conflicts as well, such as the romance Gabaldon is clearly implying will develop between Claire and Jamie. Such as the relationship between Colum and Jamie, perhaps even between Dougal and Jamie. The possibilities are endless.

Summary: When Claire returns to the orchard, Magdalen, another women she’s friendly with, is waiting for her in some state of fright for what happened to her. Magdalen lets slip that Colum has given orders that Claire be watched, but Claire already suspected this.

The next day, a surge of food poisoning strikes the castle, and Claire is too busy tending the sick and tracking down the source of the bad food to go picking fruit. She finally discovers that a bad cow carcass is the result of all the trouble. While laying into the man in charge of meat preservation, Dougal finds her and invites her to accompany him into the village. He has business to handle, and she needs certain herbs for the sick, which she should be able to procure from Geillis. Claire jumps at the chance to escape the castle, even for just a little while.

Writer Comments: I have to wonder if Dougal and Colum are testing Claire by allowing her to ride into the village. Will she try to run away or not? But then, this is yet another small step or escalation in the subtle conflict between Claire and the MacKenzies. Even if Gabaldon doesn’t intend to pique my suspicions in this manner, setting up that conflict earlier allow them fertile ground, and that’s what helps generate interest in the story.

Too, by starting this section, barely a page long, with Magdalen slipping about Colum having Claire watched and ending it with this offer from Dougal, Gabaldon naturally pairs the two. Again, whether on purpose or by following her subconscious muse, the result is engaging and deft.

Summary: Geillie is delighted to have Claire visit and quickly whisks her off to the stillroom to help prepare herbs. While there, a commotion outside draws Claire’s attention. A tanner’s boy has been accused of thievery, and the priest and a good crowd bring him to Geillie’s husband for judgment.

Claire inquires after what’s likely to happen. Geillie tells her it depends on her husband’s mood. If he’s in good spirits, the boy will probably merely receive a whipping. If he’s not feeling well, he might order the lad’s ear or hand cut off. Claire is appalled. She asks Geillie to interfere on the boy’s behalf and ask her husband for mercy. At first, Geillie finds this peculiar, but she promises to do her best as Claire is a friend.

Claire waits in the stillroom, pounding rosemary and in great anxiety over the situation. She recognizes that, if she were to get directly involved as an outsider, she would probably make the situation far worse. However, Geillie does not disappoint. When she returns, she tells Claire about how dramatic she was, the image of matronly concern for the boy, and how she convinced her husband to show leniency. Rather than a whipping or losing an appendage,the boy will merely have his ear nailed to the pillory and be required to stay there for an hour. This hardly seems lenient to Claire, but she tries to make her peace with it.

As dusk draws near, Jamie comes to fetch her back to the castle. Geillie sends a whole chest of herbs with them. However, before mounting the horses, Claire finds out that the reason the boy is still at the pillory is because he hasn’t yet mustered the courage to jerk the nail from his ear, a gruesome task he must accomplish alone.

Quietly, so as not to draw anyone’s notice, she asks Jamie to pull the nail for the boy. Jamie’s up for the mischief but asks her to create a distraction so no one will suspect he interfered.

Together, they come to the lad to inspect his ear and give advise on his predicament. Jamie offers to jerk the boy’s head for him so the nail will rip out the side of his ear, but the boy is terrified at the suggestion. At this cue, Claire pretends to grow dizzy. She intentionally steps on the toes of the person behind her, stumbles, grabs people to keep her balance, and then, pretending a final swoon into unconsciousness, pitching headfirst off the pillory, taking a girl with her.

The crowd turns to her aid, giving Jamie time to surreptitiously pull the nail from the pillory and the boy’s ear. Claire is borne back to Geillie’s house and plied with drinks, blankets, and sympathy. At last, Jamie insists they must leave and carries her out.

They ride back to the castle, and Claire thanks him for his help and insists that, when she originally asked, she had no notion it might put him in danger. He shrugs off her concern and insists that he wasn’t about to be less bold than a Sassenach woman. And with all this, Claire sense a deeper friendship forming between them.

Writer Comments: First, let me say, “Ouch!” A nail through the ear! While I understand it rather trifling compared to many historical punishments, it’s still enough to make one cringe. I’m sure many other readers did the same at this point in the novel, giving testimony to the fact that Gabaldon is good at making her readers feel what the characters feel.

Hurrying past that uncomfortable incident, however, take a look at the pages dedicated to Claire and Jamie’s interactions. Whenever the two of them get together on the page, there’s definitely chemistry. They certainly have a propensity for mischief, which makes them more fun, but there’s a certain something in the way Gabaldon writes them that gives scenes energy and interest. I cannot point out quite how she manages this except to say it’s all in the characters themselves. Just like in a movie, the audience can tell if characters have chemistry or not. Just because an author invents two people does not mean they’ll work well together.

Before I go into two specific passages that highlight crucial points of the seen, note how Gabaldon is taking Jamie and Claire’s relationship to a new level. They are by no means romantically involved at this point, though other characters have implied that they might be. However, this seen solidifies affection, trust, and a kindredness between them. That alone drives them closer.

Now, to those two passages. The first occurs shortly after Claire arrives in the village with Dougal:

In fact, I had amused myself on the ride to the smithy by imagining an aerial view of the village as a representation of a skeletal forearm and hand; the High Street was the radius, along which lay the shops and businesses and residences of the more well-to-do. St. Margaret’s Lane was the ulna, a narrower street running parallel with the High, tenanted by smithy, tannery, and less genteel artisans and businesses. The village square (which,  like all village squares I had ever seen, was not square at all, but roughly oblong) formed the carpals and metacarpals of the hand, while the several lines of cottages made up the phalangeal joints of the fingers. -- page 121

This is a fantastic example of an extended simile. It works so well because it’s original and it fits Claire perfectly as someone who often thinks in medicinal terms. When choosing similes and metaphors, ensure they fit the voice of your point-of-view character and go for original. Too many cliches are made with old, threadbare similes and metaphors.

Now, take a look at the second quote. This second is from when Claire stands at the window watching the crowd, waiting to see how successful Geillie will be in getting mercy for the tanner’s boy.

Looking down at the assembly, standing patiently in the drizzle awaiting a verdict; I suddenly had a vivid understanding of something. Like so many, I had heard, appalled, the reports that trickled out of postwar Germany; the stories of deportations and mass murder, of concentration camps and burnings. And like so many others had done, and would do so, for many years to come, I had asked myself, “How could the people let it happen? They must have known, must have seen the trucks, the coming and going, the fences and smoke. How could they stand by and do nothing?” Well, now I knew. 
The stakes were not even life or death in this case. And Colum’s patronage would likely prevent any physical attack on me. But my hands grew clammy around the porcelain bowl as I thought of myself stepping out, alone and powerless, to confront that mob of solid and virtuous citizens, avid for the excitement of punishment and blood to alleviate the tedium of existence. 
People are gregarious by necessity. Since the days of the first cave dwellers, humans--hairless, weak, and helpless save for cunning--have survived by joining together in groups; knowing, as so many edible creatures have found, that there is protection in numbers. And that knowledge, bred in the bone, is what lies behind mob rule. Because to step outside the group, let alone to stand against it, was for uncounted thousands of years death to the creature who dared it. To stand against a crowd would take something more than ordinary courage; something that went beyond human instinct. And I feared I did not have it, and fearing, was ashamed. -- page 123

What a powerful passage. This is an example of where internal narration is the best choice. This has emotion and impact. Yes, it uses the tools of exposition and “telling,” but it’s far from boring. In fact, conflict overflows from this passage, and that conflict draws us in. The dilemma Claire faces is universal. We all know the fear of contradicting the crowd. But Gabaldon heightens the conflict by placing it on the same stage as one of the greatest atrocities of the modern era, the Holocaust. This works because it’s something Claire would known and understand and because it’s something reader know.

But look at the last lines:

To stand against a crowd would take something more than ordinary courage; something that went beyond human instinct. And I feared I did not have it, and fearing, was ashamed. -- page 123

This is the crux of the conflict as well as the apex of this particular character revelation. Even though Claire believes she should possess the quality to stand against a mob to fight for what she believes is right, she comes to the realization that she does not have that quality. She is ashamed. I don’t know about you, but I can very much understand this. I’ve felt shame for not being able to find the courage to do what I know is right, and sometimes that type of shame can haunt a person. This is also a conflict.

So Claire has multiple conflicts occurring at once. The conflict of the boy’s fate. The conflict of her desires against the crowd’s. The conflict that comes from realizing she hasn’t the strength of character she hoped. Three conflicts in such a short space help make this passage rich and dense.

Thank you for joining me for this chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, swing back by for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.

To see other books I've broken down for writing tips, click here.

Friday, October 10, 2014

How to Prepare for NaNoWriMo

November is famous among writers as National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), the month in which writers attempt to write a novel, from beginning to end, in 30 days. Technically, the official rules state 50,000 words counts as finishing, but the concept is more important behind NaNoWriMo than the precise word count, at least in my opinion. But October is also important for writers, especially those participating in NaNoWriMo.


Because October is the month to make sure enough preparation and prewriting is finished so tackling that full novel is less daunting. But when you’re not allowed to begin that first draft until the clock hits midnight on November 1st, what can you get away with preparing for NaNoWriMo?

Here are a few ideas:

Character Creation:

Go ahead and figure out who your protagonist and antagonist are. Decide their names, backstories, motivations, goals, and quirks. Do the same for supporting characters. When you get into your first draft, you can fine tune these characters, but you’ll save yourself loads of time if you don’t have to figure out the perfect name in November when you should be pounding away at the keyboard and scratching nonstop on paper.

Create the Setting:

Settings are crucial to fiction. They can be as dynamic as a character in the story or simply add texture and nuance for the plot and character growth. When it comes to prewriting the setting, let loose with your creativity and enjoy it. Make maps. Surround yourself with pictures from the real world locale or, if creating your own setting, find a similar real world locale. (I did this when writing a story set on the Rhine River, which is gorgeous.) Write descriptions. Jot notes about history, culture, food, mindsets, whatever you can think up. Read books on the locale or write your own if it’s entirely fictional. But above all else, make sure to figure out how your setting and characters impact each other, for that dynamic will add depth to your story come November.


Yes, among everything else I’m mentioning here, I know this one can be a challenge for pantsers (a writer who figures out the story by the seat of their pants) like me. At the very least, I recommend deciding your story’s inciting incident (the event that starts the tale on its irreversible journey), the midpoint (the place, approximately 50% of the way through the story where things take a sharp turn), and the climax (how the story is resolved). I also encourage you to figure out major turning points between these three main points. Have some idea of the direction your story will, or at least might, go will save you time and frustration in November.

However, if you’re a plotter (a writer who enjoys planning out a story before composing it), this step should be no problem. The main thing to remember is that you are allowed to outline and plot before November 1st. Take advantage of the time.

Decide on Conflict:

Conflict is the glue that holds a story together. It’s what makes fiction engaging. While a lot of conflict will arise as you write that first draft, you can and should begin determining what the story’s primary conflicts will be now. What is the conflict that pits the protagonist and antagonist against each other? Why is that conflict important to each of them? How does the conflict impact the setting and other characters? What can make that conflict matter more and become more personal to hero and villain? Just answering these questions can take you most of the way to forming a good, basic outline.

Knock Non-Writing Responsibilities Out Now:

While none of us can avoid the need to prepare and eat food, take care of our families, go to work, go grocery shopping, or handle other daily tasks and responsibilities, there are ways to give ourselves more writing time. Knock off as many things on your To-Do list as possible. For the things you’ve been procrastinating on, get them out of the way now. If you have to figure out who’s bringing what to Thanksgiving dinner, go ahead and iron it out. Your relatives may think you’re a tad crazy, but that’s just part of the writing lifestyle. If you need to get the car’s tires rotated or pick up snow tires, do it in October. If you have a blog, write up all of November’s posts now. Don’t have that stuff hanging over your head in November, all ready to make you feel guilty for writing or to give you excuses to procrastinate on your novel. With as few non-writing to-dos on your mind, you’ll be able to focus much better and be far more productive.

These are just a few ideas to help you prepare for NaNoWriMo. If you have others, please share them in the comments section.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Read, Chapter 8

Welcome back to this read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, where we examine the elements that make this bestseller work. To catch up or review previous parts of this read, click here.



Chapter 8: An Evening’s Entertainment

Summary: Claire receives an invitation from Colum to attend a musical performance in the hall that evening. She goes, and Colum invites her to share a drink with him, providing a delicious rosy Rhenish wine. In the midst of their conversation, Colum questions her about her French relations, offering to send word ahead of her if she provide him with their names. But Claire has no names to give. And thus Colum wins that round.

Writer Comments: Conflict is an essential element of fiction; however, it can take numerous forms. Sometimes the most intriguing conflict comes in the more subtle varieties. Colum and Claire are in conflict because Colum suspects she’s lying and Claire dares not let him receive confirmation that she is deceiving him. However, Colum at no point goes on an outright assault of her honesty. His manner ever remains genteel, and he treats Claire with nothing but the appearance of gracious magnanimity. Their conflict derives entirely from implication and risk, from a careful dance of phrasing, avoidance, and deft deflection. The potential outcome of this subtler form of conflict results in an enthralling duel that grants the pleasure of lasting multiple chapters.

Conflict in fiction should span the spectrum of outright, obvious physical clashes to the subtle dance of words and suspicion.

Summary: After such an uncomfortable interview, in which Claire knows she lost, she begs the need to relieve herself and returns to the hall later. Fortunately, she took a wrong turn and ended up on the opposite end of the hall, a blessing that allows her to more easily avoid Colum.

She spots Laoghaire, the girl  Jamie took the punishment for, and tries to engage her in conversation. However, Laoghaire is clearly awkward at their interaction. But when Claire catches the girl watching  Jamie, she determines to take matters into her own hands. She waves  Jamie over and tries to get him and Laoghaire talking.

 Jamie is clearly a bit uncomfortable around Laoghaire. He’s polite to her and friendly enough, but he’s clearly more concerned with Claire. Shortly after Laoghaire touches his arm, he arranges to switch places with Claire so that Claire sits between them. This allows Claire to have an unobstructed view of the bard at the end of the hall and for  Jamie to whisper translations to the songs in her ear. Laoghaire is clearly quite displeased.

In he midst of the performance,  Jamie realizes what wine Claire’s drinking. She admits to having had three glasses, and  Jamie informs her that the wine in double strength to help Colum with his pain. He finishes her wine for her and escorts her to her room before she’s too drunk to manage the stairs.

However, when they reach her room, he follows her inside and dispenses with his shirt. Claire realizes he merely intends to at last allow her to remove the bandage. His shoulder wound is healing well. She asks why he wouldn’t let her tend it before, and he confesses that he didn’t want to take his shirt off in front of Alec the horse master and his boss. Alec knows  Jamie was whipped, but  Jamie fears that, if he actually sees the scars, Alec will never be able to see  Jamie as  Jamie again. He’ll just see the wounds and what happened.

Writer Comments: This section deals a lot with implication. Gabaldon uses other characters’ manners, words, movement, and expressions to suggest their motivations and inner workings. Laoghaire, for example, is clearly smitten with Jamie, but Jamie is not entirely taken with her. He’s so clearly more interested in Claire, and he reveals this by how he talks to each of them, how he insists Claire switch places with him, and in how much more comfortable he seems in Claire’s presence. Claire, of course, is oblivious to this, yet Gabaldon implies enough to keep the reader guessing and snared.

Yet, thanks to the narrative style of the work, we cannot know exactly what other characters aside from Claire really think. Gabaldon is good at suggesting their perceptions, turmoils, and interests. Yet she solves the mystery on occasion. In this instance, she explains at last why Jamie was so reluctant to allow Claire to tend his shoulder. His reason is understandable and sympathetic, and it’s not what I expected. This allows the pleasure of guessing based on Gabaldon’s hints without the frustration of remaining bewildered. But notice that Gabaldon does not solve most of her mysteries. Most remain unexplained so far. However, by solving a few, she continues suggesting to the reader, even on an unconscious level, that resolution will come in time. That desire for resolution coupled with the denial of it is a big part of what makes fiction enjoyable. It’s something an good author must master to create a truly engaging work.

Additionally in this scene, the bard shares stories about women who vanish in or appear near rocks, usually tied with the Wee Folk. Story after story refers to the rocks, the vanishing, and the woman’s eventual return. This gives her hope, for she sees the similarities to her own situation. Perhaps she is like these women and can return to Frank and home.

This accomplishes two primary things for the book. First, it creates a sense of hope. That hope will carry Claire through more and encourage readers to dive deeper into the story. After all, we naturally want to feel that hope satisfied. Second, it tightens the story’s threads. A story is composed of multiple threads involving theme, characters, conflicts, and more. The more connects and author makes, the strong the story usually becomes.

Summary: The next day, Claire catches Jamie kissing Laoghaire in an alcove. He sees her watching, for she’s at that time unsure how to sneak away without alerting them, shrugs, and keeps on. That evening at supper, Claire teases him about it, uses the horses as a metaphor for his tryst. Jamie threatens to stomp her foot under the table, and she kicks him in the ankle instead. Alec, who’s sitting with them, berates Jamie for his carelessness with the horses. Only after Jamie leaves does Alec turn his attention on Claire. He gives her warning against doing anything to let anyone know what Jamie did, for if Colum knew, the consequences would be far worse than a black eye. Claire asks if he means like a marriage. Alec then informs her that Jamie needs a woman for a wife, not a girl who will remain a girl even when she’s fifty.

Writer Comments: Jamie making out with Laoghaire casts some doubt on his earlier seeming disinterest or mere passing interest in her before. But that’s part of what makes it fun. His motivations are clearly complex, so having to continuously guess and alter one’s opinion makes for a more interesting read.

Also, I suspect Alec is far more aware of the potential for romantic interest between Jamie and Claire than Claire is. For all Alec gives the appearance of being far more deft in the equine world, he’s a character of surprising insight. This allows him to be Gabaldon’s nudging voice. If an author needs to utilize a character to nudge, drop hint, or something similar, it’s often more effective to use a minor character.

Thank you for joining me for this chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, join me Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.

To see other books I’ve broken down for the nuggets of writing insight, click here.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Dandelion in History, Food, and for Writing

One of the cool things about being a writer is the chance to learn and experience a wide variety of subjects. Sure, you can write about everything, but really embracing a subject both adds texture and enjoyment to life and fiction. Sometimes, the subject can be as simple and common as the dandelion.

Most of us think of dandelions as pests invading our yards or as those special flowers we wished upon as children. But there’s a lot more to the dandelion than meets the eye.

For example, they were commonly eaten in Europe during the medieval period, a historical time that has greatly influenced the fantasy genre. Yet how many fantasy stories mention them as a staple at table? The Romans also appreciated them as well as other times and regions, all of which have influenced speculative fiction settings. Like today and in real life, in fiction they’re too commonly overlooked.

I could try to explain more about the dandelion, but these people do a better job. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a video that includes much historical information, but this first covers some of the folklore that characters in fantasy or historical fiction might well believe.

This second video talks more about how dandelions are eaten today. A number of videos exist out there that cover this topic, but this one is one packs in a lot of information and has some humor. Consider how characters in your favorite novel or in your own writing might use similar techniques.

With regards to historical consumption, I’ve mainly seen dandelions referenced as a salad green in medieval history, but dandelion wine is also perfectly viable for characters and settings inspired by the medieval period.

Also, in the second video, the instructor mentions that dandelions are a good source of protein and calories in the plant world. While I don’t have a historical source to verify this idea, it seems plausible that dandelions might have helped the poor dirt sucking serfs survive in a world where their hunting options, and thus main protein source, were strictly limited and meat came at a premium.

When writing any fiction inspired by history, don’t overlook the obvious and common. Sometimes, simple things like dandelions can give fiction a nice accenting flavor.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Read, Chapter 7

Welcome to this read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here, like my other reads of books, we take a look at the techniques authors use to effectively tell great stories. To catch up or review previous chapters in this read, click here.



Chapter 7: Davie Beaton’s Closet

Summary: Colum summons Claire to his quarters where the caged birds reside. They speak of polite things, then Colum slides in a comment about Claire’s healing skills as Dougal and Mrs. Fitz testified to him. Claire waves aside their compliments, insisting what she did was not that difficult. But Colum encourages her to take a look through their old healer’s surgery. Castle Leoch has, apparently, been without a healer since this Mr. Beaton died of fever.

Bored from going back and forth between the garden and kitchen, Claire readily accepts, and Colum leader her to the surgery himself. There she finds a large collection of substances, drawers, jars, and so forth covered in dust. In a cabinet, she locates Mr. Beaton’s log book and glances through it. Among the entries, she finds a record for Sarah MacKenzie, whose finger Mr. Beaton had mended. However, when Claire asks Colum how Sarah fared, he informs her that she died. He hopes Claire will demonstrate far greater talents than Mr. Beaton’s; though, he reasons she can hardly be worse.

Colum leaves to request Mrs. Fitz send some girls to clean the room, and for the first time in a while, Claire finds herself alone. Though, she’s not foolish enough to think she’s truly unobserved. Everywhere she has gone, she’s caught someone watching her, a prospect that makes her hopes for escape quite bleak.

However, Claire takes this opportunity for solitude to try and figure out what happened when she went through the stones. On reflection, she decides she definitely resisted something during her passage, like a current. Within the current were impressions almost like thoughts, and some were horrific. She thinks she tried to move away from these, and that leads her to wonder if, somehow, she chose to come out at this particular time in history.

Writer Comments: Colum is a complex character. He is all politeness to Claire, yet she’s seen the brutality in him when he had Jaime beaten in place of the girl. He’s a man struggling with the pain and physical limitations of a chronic disease, yet no one dares cross him. Too, for all we readers have seen of him, he’s not fully fathomable. This complexity makes him interesting and difficult to predict. When it comes to the climax of this story, I’m not sure on what side of the protagonist/antagonist line Colum will fall.

Complex foils to protagonists help keep fiction interesting. If a foil is predicable, he quickly becomes boring and offers no challenge to either the protagonist or the reader. Give your characters layers, inner conflict, motivations, goals, and their own story arcs. This doesn’t mean you must reveal every aspect of these traits, but their existence will give these characters greater life when you write them.

Summary: Later, Claire takes lunch to Jamie again. She asks why he’s on the run, and he explains that he’s an outlaw, wanted for murder. However, Jamie didn’t murder the man he’s blamed for killing, but as he’s murdered plenty of Englishmen since, he supposes it’s not entirely unjust.

As he explains to Claire about having suffered an injury to the head recently, one that robbed him of some memory and landed him in a French monastery, Alec the Master of Horse arrives to lightly chastise Jamie for sloth. Jamie offers Alec part of his lunch instead, and the men sit, eat, and converse about horses, slipping into Gaelic. Claire falls asleep.

When she wakes, the men have returned to English and discuss what decision Jamie will make at the Gathering. Apparently, Jamie must decide if he’ll forsake his true name, which apparently isn’t MacTavish, and become a MacKenzie. Both options have advantages and disadvantages. For example, if Dougal has his way and the Stuarts win whatever it is they’re after, Jamie could get his lands back. The men don’t elaborate on what Dougal’s way might be or exactly what the Stuarts intend to achieve. Too, Alec points out that, if Jamie does become a MacKenzie, he can soon take Alec’s job of Master of Horse and do quite well for himself. Already, the lassies are swooning after him, including Claire, according to Alec.

Claire decides this is a good time to become obviously awake. She doesn’t particularly want to hear where Alec might head the conversation with regards to her. Alec warns her to be careful when she comes to the stables so she doesn’t distract the horses, for they have a lot of work to do. Claire promises to take care, and despite Alec’s obvious dismissal, she pushes to look at Jamie’s shoulder and remove the dressing. But Jamie, who until that point was in no hurry to return to work, bolts up and begs off by claiming he’s too busy.

Claire finds it odd that he’s avoiding her inspection and promises she’ll take a look after supper. On the way back to the castle, she realizes that Jamie has been unusually open with her, a stranger, for a man who’s an outlaw.

Writer Comments: I wonder what Jamie is hiding. Like this, there are many implications in this scene. Jamie implies right and left about the specifics of his earlier adventures while giving few specific details. Alec uses the analogy of the horses to warn Claire about distracting Jamie. And Jamie’s resistance to Claire’s inspection even while he’s open with her about other things implies something’s wrong with him.

Implications are highly useful to the author. While writers must ensure they’re clear, if they state everything plainly, they miss out on the textured world of storytelling, or at least part of it. Storytelling should include a variety of techniques both to maintain interest and because some techniques are more useful for one purpose and others for another. Implication is no different.

Too, if a writer is direct all the time, there’s no mystery to occupy the reader. Part of the enjoyment fiction provides is the uncertainty of the characters’ fates and purposes. Always stating such things plainly robs reads of the pleasure of pondering, fiddling with concepts the story presents, and imagining one outcome or another, constantly adjusting as the story progresses. It’s this very quality that lends fans the opportunity to theorize and participate in animated discussions and occasional arguments.

However, while implication over transparency is a useful and necessary tool for good fiction, a writer must also balance it carefully. Too much implication creates a muddled tale that frustrates. Too little can lead to oversimplification, tedium, boredom, and a sense of talking down to readers, a move that tend to cause a lot of offense. Like every other aspect of storytelling, each author must find the balance that works best for a particular story and for his personal style. Only writing mountains of words, reading tons of books, and being open to critique from others will help a writer find that balance.

Another aspect of this scene worth considering is how Gabaldon provides information. The conversation between Alec and Jamie involves information Claire wouldn’t normally be privy to. However, as the men think she’s asleep, they’re looser with their tongues. Claire overhears, somewhat intentionally, things that would normally be obscured from her. Too, had the men realized her ability to eavesdrop, they probably would not have been so forthright.

Revealing information like this to readers and the point-of-view character can be a real challenge in a first person story. Because first person is so intimate of a point of view, the reader is only allowed information that the narrator, a single narrator, discovers and knows. That’s the biggest challenge with first person POV. While it offers the lovely advantage of deeply experiencing a story, info dropping can be difficult. A third person narrative, which allows for the use of multiple viewpoints, is easier.

However, as Gabaldon demonstrates, there are ways to overcome this hurdle. But notice that she doesn’t casually include eavesdropped conversations. There’s reason for Claire to overhear. She’s not there by accident. Too, the other characters’ reactions when they realize she’s awake are believable. That is, after all, the trick with pulling off the POV-character-eavesdropping technique: It must occur in a believable manner that impacts the characters in the story and has purpose.

Summary: Once cleaned of dust, Claire culls Mr. Beaton’s medical supplies, referencing the book of doctoring she finds--which contains enough disturbing remedies that it’s no wonder Mr. Beaton was so unsuccessful and quite miraculous so many patients survived treatments. When uncertain of a jar’s contents, she uses her own senses to determine its disturbing cache: animal dung, woodlice, and earthworm oil. Too, she references her own knowledge of herbs and medicine. When finished, the discard pile far exceeds the small collection she decides might have useful properties.

Last, she turns to the chest. A horrid stench emerges when she opens it. Within, she finds Mr. Beaton’s surgery instruments, all of which look more suited to carpentry than surgery, and none of which Mr. Beaton appeared inclined to clean. Claire immediately closes the chest and starts shoving it toward the door.

However, a pair of young men enter, one supporting the other who has an injured foot. Claire uses the chest instead as a seat and begins her stint as castle physician.

Writer Comments: As someone interested in the medicinal properties of herbs, I found this section particularly intriguing and horrifying. Among the contents of Mr. Beaton’s medicines include such disturbing ingredients as pigeon blood, powdered human skull, dried snails, toads, millipedes in wine, and dried mouse ears. The stream of nauseating substances was as fascinating as a train wreck. Gabaldon had clearly enjoyed researching such things and relished including them in the story. That sense of enjoyment infused the writing and made it all the more fun for me to read.

No matter the emotion, as writers, we must feel what we write. Whether led by hope, sadness, or the gleeful pleasure of disgusting others, that emotion infuses the prose. It aids in our word choice, sentence structure, and that something mysterious that gives fiction life. After all, if a writer’s own story does not impact him emotionally, he cannot expect a reader to feel connected to it either.

Thank you for joining me for this read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. We’ll resume the story next Monday. Until then, swing back by on Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.

To check out other novels I’ve broken down for the engaging stories and insights into writing, click here.