By the way, what is Traska?

For this week’s Writing Wednesday, I’ve decided to give you all a look into the city of Traska, the fictional setting of The Thieves of Traska. The name is actually derived from a couple of real places I’ve visited many times in Michigan: Traverse City and Kalkaska.

I remember being in the car about two years ago, traveling between Michigan and Virginia with my family. All I had was an idea to expand a short story about a thief breaking out of jail — I still needed a new name for that thief, a location, a plot, and just about everything else. Every so often, I wrote down the names of cities and towns we passed through, picking apart the sounds I liked in each. After testing a few options on my family, I decided on Traska.

Even the Toskey River, which cuts through the city, got its name from the petoskey stones my family collects in Michigan. Though the landscape and the names are inspired by my time up north, the city is nothing like what I’ve seen there.

This is a partial image of an unfinished painting of Traska from the earlier drafts. The city was smaller, but still occupied the north and south banks of the Toskey River.

And now, for your reading pleasure, an excerpt from The Thieves of Traska about the city itself. As the book is yet unpublished, the following text is subject to change before being finalized.

Excerpt

Late in the morning, the forest ended abruptly, cut back for farming. The ground sloped upward, a number of farmhouses and villages dotting the countryside. Further ahead, Claire could make out the serene blue of a bay, rounded mountains spanning the horizon, and a river that popped in and out of sight among clumps of forest. If she had to guess, that was the Toskey River, and it fed right into the bay.

And the dark shape next to it could only be Traska.

Before reaching the city proper, they passed through a town that spread along the edge of the bay all the way to the massive stone wall surrounding Traska. According to locals, the area was called Skeggs, though they couldn’t agree on whether it was a town on its own or one of Traska’s districts.

As they neared the gate separating Skeggs from Traska, they entered a swelling stream of people bustling in and out of the gate. Once Claire and Garrison passed under the shadow of the gate, the air had a different charge to it. She could feel the life of the city pulsing around her and in the bluish stones beneath her feet. The sounds of peddlers hawking goods and horse-drawn carts rattling by carried over the crowd from an open marketplace further up the road and echoed off stone and mortar walls. There wasn’t a single building in sight with fewer than two floors; some towered more than twice that further in. The buildings were the same blue-grey as the roads, many of them displaying glittering tiled mosaics on one wall or another.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little peek into The Thieves of Traska! Be sure to check back on the blog for details on my upcoming giveaway to celebrate the fourth draft.

Something’s not right: The opening of a story

The beginning of a story is a pretty terrifying place. All you’ve got is a blank page in front of you and maybe a couple of scenes you want to write, but don’t belong on the first page. Some people like to write out those parts and work around them; I do it in my notebook so I can include dozens of notes to myself about what needs to lead up to that scene.

I get lost in my own thought process and end up writing commentary on my ideas.

But that scene might not ever make it to the page. Maybe, as you’ve been writing the things that come before it, the characters have no logical reason for entering that scene. Or they’ve developed differently than you expected and they wouldn’t handle the situation quite the same way. For whatever reason, your initial piece of the puzzle just doesn’t fit. You can either rework it or accept that it didn’t make the cut. Don’t force a scene into the story if it has no business being there.

When starting at the very beginning, though, it’s easy to get caught in a cycle of distracting thoughts. Am I starting it with the right scene? Should I start earlier, or later? I’ve really got to hook people with the first sentence — what the heck am I going to write?! Does it even matter what I write now, since I’m going to edit it anyway?

In all the various novels I’ve drafted over the years, not one has kept its original opening perfectly intact past the second draft. In fact, I end up cutting most of if not the entire first chapter. Writing it all out — even though I know I’m going to get rid of it — is still a necessary part of the process. How else do you expect to find the right voice for the story?

As for how to open the story, you already know there’s no single right way to do so. There’s a right way for your story to open, and you’re the one who has to figure that out. Trial and error, my friends. You’ll write a lot, cut a lot, and eventually find something that makes you happy.

My goal for an opening line: either something has gone wrong, or it’s about to. Some examples from my own work:

No one was fast enough to catch her once she started running.

This wasn’t the kind of silence Colin wanted from his wife.

The unintelligible words of a murmured dirge hung like a dense fog over the villagers clustered before the gallows.

The first one makes us wonder who is running after the girl and why. The second makes it clear that Colin probably did something to upset his wife. The third is a gloomy and poetic image of villagers gathered to watch a hanging.

It’s important that the opening line establishes some kind of situation that will make your readers question what’s going on and why. That’s how you get them to keep reading.

That will be important later, right?

Chekhov’s gun is one of my personal favorite dramatic principles. It’s what goes through my head every time I watch a movie or read a book and try to guess at upcoming scenes. There are some variations on the wording of Anton Chekhov’s quote, but they all basically say the same thing:

“One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”

That’s the most concise version I’ve seen, taken from Wikipedia. I got to thinking about leaving subtle signs for readers when I got some feedback from a friend who is reading over the current draft of The Thieves of Traska. She mentioned that she knew some characters who appeared briefly in one chapter were going to show up later. How? Because I gave them names.

It’s a slightly more obvious tactic to clue your readers in to a reappearing character. They won’t get stuck on it, though; they’ll keep reading until they see the name again and say, “Aha! I knew you’d be back.” And then they’ll move on.

Or, you know, you could TELL everyone. Source

However, this same friend asked me to clarify why one character felt the way they did. The feeling came up several times, so I imagine my friend crying “WHY?!” to the heavens every time it was mentioned. The answer was very short and simple. Had I added about six words to the first time this feeling came up, my friend would have known what was behind each echo of the emotion.

As with all things, it comes down to balancing between leading your readers and trusting them to connect the dots on their own. In a novel, you may only have to reference a thing once for it to remain in a reader’s mind until the very end. Maybe you need to reference it every few chapters.

Or it’s a matter of how much detail you give a person/thing on first appearance. If you dedicate a full paragraph to describing a rock, that rock better be important — it crushes someone’s foot, gets thrown at someone’s head, or it turns out to be worth a fortune. If it’s not going to be in the spotlight later, the rock is just a rock. Move on.

Best and Worst of Critique Comments (bonus)

It’s been fun going through the nice and nonsensical comments my peers have left on my short stories over the years. Some are helpful, some are supportive, some are mean and some are just plain funny. They’re a great way to remind my fellow writers — particularly those new to having their work critiqued — that everyone’s got an opinion. Sometimes those opinions can hurt your feelings, but it’s important to look past that for any valuable input you can use. Just like when you read customer reviews on Amazon.com, you tend to ignore the ones that just say “Awful product. Never buying from this company again.” because there’s nothing there to advise you on why you shouldn’t buy the product. For all you know, that guy didn’t even read the product description before he bought the thing.

For this bonus episode, we’re actually going to take a look at some more comments left on the last three short stories I wrote. What makes these comments so special? Well, they come from my professor. I’ll go ahead and give him the benefit of the doubt — it’s the end of the year, the loud class next door has been bugging him all quarter, and there could be something in his personal life really stressing him out. This is the first time his comments have proved less useful and — as in the first picture below — a little hurtful.

Instead of launching into a defensive tirade, I want to use these comments to show you all that even professors, who we sometimes put on a pedestal for all their wisdom and experience, can offer less than helpful feedback.

hunters comments
“I’ll allow this one trip down a medieval rabbit hole, but if you do it again, you’ll start with a C. That you didn’t know if the story is set before or after The Black Death tells me you need to do more research.”

This wasn’t the first fantasy story I’ve passed off as historical fiction for this professor, but it’s the first time he’s responded in this way. This story earned an A, so I’m at least doing something right. But that just makes the threat of a lower grade bizarre. (To clarify, when he said “you’ll start with a C,” he meant that a C is the highest grade I could get if I did everything else perfectly.)

This professor also doesn’t like genre fiction — he prefers contemporary realistic fiction — so I’m taking this particular comment as an opinion of taste rather than objective assessment of quality. Taste should have no bearing on a grade.

sleepless comments
-A Good, if a bit melodramatic at times. She had a miscarriage? Stillborn? Co-worker’s callous remark a bit implausible. Where does he work, or Where did he work? In a silver mine in Reno circa 1870?”

For my contemporary story about the married couple that had a miscarriage, my professor generally felt it was melodramatic. During verbal critique, he offered some rather morbid suggestions on how to adjust the situation to be “more dramatic,” such as turning the accidental miscarriage into an abortion forced by the husband. This question about where the husband works that a coworker would make such a callous comment about the wife seems odd, especially given its phrasing.

Sure, I have years of anecdotal proof that people, myself included, can make tactless remarks without thinking. I think we’ve all said things and realized a few seconds later that, gee, I really shouldn’t have said that. But it’s hard to tell if what I wrote sounds more like intentional insensitivity when my only feedback is a quip. It’s important to explain why something doesn’t work when critiquing.

invaders comments
“A dystopian futuristic Robo Cop War of the Worlds woman warrior swooning techno romance novel? Part of one?”

Perhaps the least helpful feedback (as far as clarity on what changes are needed to improve the story) comes on the last story I submitted. Only the professor read it, so I can’t use my classmates’ comments to help decipher what’s “wrong” here. I guess any mentions of giant machines during an alien invasion will bring to mind War of the Worlds, but I’ve never seen any Robo Cop. Regardless, most writing is derivative of something these days.

What’s not working with this feedback is, again, that I’m not being told what isn’t working. Is it the “romantic voice” people have said I write in? Is the presence of a female character — who spends the whole story freaking out and trying not to bleed out from a gunshot wound — to blame for the “woman warrior” feel? What exactly am I supposed to change for the revised version?

As you can see, my friends, comments you don’t know how to respond to can come from anyone. They could even come from you. If you get responses like this, ignore what won’t help you. And if you’re critiquing someone else’s work, remember to explain why you think a change is needed.

 

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Imitations of style: Setting up the three acts

One of my writing classes this quarter focuses on structure in story. For assignments, we come up with a story and write it in the style of another piece of literature. Our options for this assignment included the Bible, Greek myth (Theseus and the Minotaur), fables (The Lion and the Mouse, The Dog and His Bone), and fairy tales (Cinderella, The Little Match Girl). It’s a 300-level Writing elective and the pieces we write are for practice, not eventual publication.

Overlooking the comma splices, incorrectly punctuated dialogue, confused homophones and a widespread lack of how to properly use “alas” (the editor in me never sleeps), my classmates have come up with an interesting collection of stories.

Some of the more entertaining ones are written in the style of the Bible — one about a bride planning her wedding, another about a student reading scary stories online instead of sleeping. But looking past the narrative, these stories all share a similar structure.

Act I

Each story begins with something to ground us in the story’s reality: setting or character. In these short stories, the exposition can last a whole page or simply be one paragraph. No matter how long, there’s usually some small detail that sets us up for actions later in the story.

Sounds like foreshadowing, right? But on a much smaller scale (especially since we’re working with short stories here, not novels). A single adjective with the introduction of a character sets up for a crucial action they make later on. If you tell readers “there once was a naughty boy named Jim,” that makes the promise that Jim will do something bad. But if you tell your readers Jim is a sweet little boy and he drowns a sick kitten later on, we’re not going to believe it.

Act I is all about establishing your authority as the writer. If we don’t trust that you own the story from the very beginning, we’re not going to stick around for the rest.

Act II

Here is where the tension lies. For books, most of the story takes place in Act II with its minor conflicts rising and falling, building up to the climax. In short stories, we’re probably still going to spend most of our time here.

Let’s say you start Act I describing the setting and introducing us to a character. Act II begins with the action or decision that starts this particular story. After working late one night with his father, the boy wakes up and discovers his dad has disappeared. Bam! Now we’re in the story of the boy’s search for his father. And all the little things that pile up to build tension — dad’s truck is missing, the house is a mess, the mailbox has been knocked over — make up the most of the story.

Tension builds in Act II. You can have your character development going on at the same time, but tension defines this part of the story. By the end of Act II, readers should feel like the tension can’t get any higher.

Act III

The final act begins with the inexorable surprise — the thing that surprises us, but we realize it couldn’t have happened any other way. Remember those tiny promises you made back in Act I? Time to make good on those.

Naughty Jim — who drowned a sick kitten because his father called him soft — finds his father has driven into a ditch and is badly injured. Rather than get help, Jim gets the truck out of the ditch, drives to a lake, and drowns his dad. Maybe a bit morbid and extreme, but it works if you set it up correctly. We wouldn’t believe it if “sweet little Jim” suddenly drowned his father. But we expect bad things of “naughty Jim.” And since his father taught him to kill things to end their pain, of course he’d kill his suffering dad!

The tension jacks up a bit higher in Act III, and then it drops down for the resolution. And that’s it.

I pulled these examples from one of my classmates’ stories. Though I simplified it to help explain the three acts, it’s one of the more successful and memorable stories.

Structure: The likely source of your problem

Ever start writing a new scene or paragraph and you get the feeling it’s just not working? Maybe you’re just not in the zone, or you’re hungry. You take a walk, make a sandwich, get some coffee, tell the dog to get off the kitchen counter… anything to get your creative juices flowing.

But before you do all that, take a look at what you wrote just before you started having problems. More than likely, there’s some structural issue there that’s messing you up.

On the smaller scale, this can be as simple as an out of place word. Maybe you’re writing a memoir piece and by the third paragraph, you start to sound like you’re looking down on the wastrels of the world, smoking a pipe in your overstuffed armchair by the fire. Look back to the first paragraph, and you notice you used the phrase “vigorous moments of exercise helped my mood tremendously.” Right there, you’ve set yourself up to echo the sound of that phrase later on.

If you’re trying to go for a lofty voice, then this example might not work for you; I took it from a memoir on of my classmates wrote. But let’s say you’re working on a novel, writing a scene where everything is business as usual until someone comes in, saying they have a problem.

Instead of writing it out, you think an easy fix is to have someone say, “Let’s talk about it.” Out of earshot for your POV character, of course. Then you don’t have to think too hard about the dialogue or setting up all the little details of the situation and can get right to having your characters solve the problem! Action, right?

Except you get to the “exciting” part and there’s no tension. Why? Because you skipped the setup. Instead of giving writers a scene in which someone is panicking and talking about a problem with some really big consequences, you took a shortcut. This amounts to, “Yeah, let’s go do the thing because bad stuff happens if we don’t.” And who wants to read that?

So you go back, find that spot where the structure’s faulty, and write that scene out as you should. Fix the transitions to that scene you were struggling with later on, and suddenly the excitement’s there!

For those of you who wag your finger at those of us who edit as we write, you can absolutely try plowing your way to the end, then come back and find all your structural issues. I took that approach when editing the first draft of a sci-fi novel I’ve been working on. After addressing the problems in the first few chapters, I had to completely rewrite everything else. Once the first part worked, the rest just didn’t make sense.

Doing this kind of editing as you write might delay you in moving forward, but it will make sure you go in the right direction.

Writing Wednesday: An excerpt from The Thieves of Traska

I’ve been working a lot lately on developing one of the side characters in The Thieves of Traska, and he’s quickly becoming one of my favorites. For Writing Wednesday Thursday this week, I wanted to share part of Claire’s first conversation with her rival, Travis Sharp.*


 

She felt behind her for a moment before locking the door. “I figured we might bump into each other again, so I wanted to know exactly who I’d made an enemy of.”

“Not me, that’s for certain. Why don’t you have a seat?” He gestured to a plush sofa with velvet cushions. She sank into it, hoping she would leave some dirt behind. Or at least a lot of blood if he kills me while I’m sitting on it, she thought, fighting to suppress a smile. Fortunately, the dark-haired rogue thought it was for him. “See? No reason we can’t be pleasant.”

“Didn’t you mention selling me as a slave?” she asked dryly.

“I’ve been known to have questionable judgement when I’ve been drinking. Then again, that’s how I’ve met all my best friends.” He gently touched the edges of a gash over one blue eye, wincing slightly. Even with his face sliced and swollen, his easy smile threatened to put her at ease. She steeled herself against it, refusing to forget for even one moment that her life was in danger. “Where’s that fellow you were with earlier?”

Claire looked down at her feet, as if her muddy shoes could provide her with a lie. Surprisingly, they did. “He drowned in the river. I thought he could swim.”

She peeked up at him, but it was impossible to tell whether or not he believed her. Her heart sank as he closed and locked the window behind him, then sat across the room from her on a cushioned stool. From his indulgent smile, she knew he wasn’t fooled. Strangely, he didn’t press the matter. Instead, he asked to see her hands.

“Why?” The change in subject caught her off guard, her mask of calm slipping.

“I’d feel better knowing if you’re hiding a knife.” Letting him know she had nothing to give her an edge was the last thing she wanted to do, but there was no real alternative. Sighing, she held both hands up, flashing the backs and her palms until he nodded. “I was surprised the Messenger came to rescue you. Not many redheaded girls among his lot, and I’d never seen you before.”

“And you know every redhead in Traska?”

He laughed, resting his elbows on his knees. The indulgent smile was back. “I know you’re not with him or the Crows. See, they’ve all got this mark on their hands.” He pinched the skin between his forefinger and thumb, showing were the mark would be. She felt the blood drain out of her face with the realization of how much she’d given away. Perhaps revealing she wasn’t with this man’s enemies would be enough to save her life.

“I’d bet my left hand that boy came to help you for a reason,” he continued. “And I’m sure he’s the reason why you’re here, giving you a little test. I’m thinking he wants to recruit you. If you’ve caught his eye, maybe I ought to get to know you a little better.”

“Not interested,” she said flatly. “I don’t like people who threaten me.”

“There’s no need to take it personally. We’re on opposite sides of the board, but we’re just pieces. The moves aren’t up to us.”


*This scene is new to this draft, so will likely see many changes in the future. Any and all feedback is appreciated.