One Line

All it took was one line. Just one, and I was hooked forever.

It’s the dream all writers have, of finding the perfect one line that grabs the reader by the ear and tosses them into the story. We want our readers to be so irrevocably involved that there is no looking back, not even for a moment.

It may be a piece of world building that enthralls them, a plot twist that shocks them, or a character they adore. No matter which one it is, we win, the reader is reading our book.

The example that comes to my mind is in Synapse by Steven James. The first chapter of the book introduces the character Kestrel, who has recently had a still birth. An instant, heart tugging connection for anyone who has gone through something similar. However it was not that particular bit of her history that hooked me, nor was it her personality, thought I liked it.

It was one line. A line that described her wanting to have a baby before she was forty. She was desperate to have a baby, desperate enough to give birth to a baby that was no biologically her own. That desperation reached through the pages and echoed in my own heart. I understood that longing. And that was it. I would have followed that character through bad writing, terrible plot twists, and nail biting experiences. No matter where Kestrel was going, I was going to.

That is what I mean by a connection between story and reader, between character and reader. It is almost impossible to artificially create. There is no magic formula, sorry guys. If there was I would tie it in a bow and hand it to you with a smile.

All I can say is that I resonated with that character because I saw something in her that was in myself. That would not have happened if she was this unrealistic wooden puppet. That character was real, living and breathing within her own story, and I felt like I was friends with her.

That one line gave me courage to keep writing. To keep creating good characters that jump off the page. Someday, I want to give my readers the same experience. To find within my books a character they immediately connect with and are willing to follow to the ends of the earth.

Shaina Merrick

Why is this so Hard?

Hey hey hey! I am coming to you from the depths of Nano, so brace yourselves for an odd brain tangle post.

As you know, this year my goal is to finish my novel. I am doing my best to finish up what I started so long ago. As I am writing it though, I am realizing why this particular book has been so hard for me to finish.

I got the idea for Sunlight on the Peaks when I was in high school. So five hundred years ago. At first, all I had were a few scenes. All to do with a girl who had been hurt by a magician. The magic system in the book is one of the first things that I figured out.

Since then, I have written the first part of the book at least four times. At least. I think I wrote the first half twice for Nanowrimo. The poor book has been plotted within an inch of its life. I did everything I was supposed to when it came to world building and plotting and characterization, and still the book gave me, gives me, fits.

Unlike some of my other novels that just flowed from my pen. They were easy to write, this one is not.

Why? Why is it so hard to write?

Well. First off, I came up with the idea when I was still young and overly ambitious. This book has a lot of high fantasy vibes, and sounds similar to lots of other books out there. A prince who needs to take back his kingdom? Who hasn’t done that? At the time I was reading lots of high fantasy and this just came out of all of that.

It has a rather large cast, and a humongous plot. There are a bunch of side plots that keep slipping out of my grasp. (I hate writing romance…) At the time, I was convinced I could do it. After all, everyone else did in the fantasy genre. Big casts and complicated plots are the staples of fantasy. Right?

And now? I don’t tend to write in high fantasy any more. I am more fascinated with worlds similar to ours, but with something a bit off about it. Or non-magical fantasy, I enjoy writing that too. I am not fantastic at juggling large casts of characters, so I tend to keep it small, and nowadays I have one POV. No matter what.

So in writing this novel, I am writing completely outside of what I am comfortable with and almost above my skill level. (or completely above, I really don’t know)

I guess you could say I am a rambling introspective writer. I am all about going through the characters thoughts with them. The world is filtered through their eyes and experiences to get to the reader. I like thinking through things as I write, and often I am writing to make sense of the world around me.

Sunlight on the Peaks is not that kind of book. If I paused to discuss things, I would never get anywhere. I have given myself a little room to breath and think, otherwise I would go bonkers. But still, it isn’t like the last book I finished, where the whole thing was deeply inside the characters head and the whole thing was very introspective.

In the years between that first scene for Sunlight on the Peaks and now, I grew as a writer. I found out what I like to write, and what makes me want to tear my hair out. I like writing a little slower paced novels with small casts and simpler plots. (simple does not mean predictable folks.)

I think at first I was trying to write like everybody else, and I almost stopped writing because of it. I couldn’t think or write like the other authors I looked up to. I tried so hard, and ended up discarding story after story and writing myself into a deep hole of the comparison game.

Finally, I decided to write what I wanted to write, and I wouldn’t care about what anyone else thought about it.

Sunlight on the Peaks is a story very dear to my heart, but it is a hold over from the time where I thought I needed to write a certain way. When I write The End, I will be closing the door on that chapter of my life. And then I will be free to keep on trying new things.

Shaina Merrick

NaNoWriMo. Or the month I die.

Who is here is doing the insanity of Nanowrimo (national novel writing month)? I complain so much about it every year, and every year I wonder why on earth I am putting myself through this. But then I get to the end of the month, and realize how much satisfaction comes from completing a novel, or at least getting 50,000 words on it.

Yes. I am doing it again. Hopefully with less complaining this time.

Though I am not sure how I will stuff work, writing 50,000 words, and general life into 30 days. I would like to meet the person who started all this and ask a few pertinent questions. Such as why couldn’t we write a novel in January or something? Ya know, where there is an extra day to get the words in? And no holidays to compete with?

Anyway. This year I went all out and made a playlist for my novel. Wow. I am motivated.

I am also, kind of sort of, breaking the rules… I won’t be starting a new novel. (oops) Nope, I am starting in the middle of a draft and writing it all the way to the end.

Why? BECAUSE LAST YEAR I ONLY WROTE THE FIRST HALF. Yup. Last Nano I wrote 50,000 words and ended up just under halfway. Can I lay down and cry now? This book is going to be a monster. It already is a monster. This year my goal in life is to complete the thing that has leeched upon my heart and soul for years now.

No I don’t hate my novel, why do you ask?

Because this is a new year, and a new possibility of finishing my novel, I decided to give it a real title, instead of the work in progress title I had for so long. (Valai is boring, okay?)

I am pleased to announce the name for my novel is…

.

.

(what, did you think I would tell you right away?)

.

.

Sunlight on the Peaks

For a long time I thought fantasy novels had to have titles that included the setting of the novel. 100 Cupboards, The Two Towers, or something like that. Then I decided that I didn’t care (story of my life).

If you are interested, you can find the pinterest board here.

Happy Writing! (or at least don’t pull all your hair out)

Shaina Merrick

The Story of My Life

Warning. Introspective post ahead.

My entire life revolves around story. The stories I tell others, and the stories I tell myself. From the time I was little, I was telling myself stories. The settings changed, and the side characters. However I was always the main character, the one setting things in motion and leading the plot forward.

It was, and is, second nature to create a story about my friends and I. Or about strangers. I watched people in the parking lot and made up lives for them, and places for them to go.

When I got older, those stories tended to take a romantic bent. It was not uncommon for me to make up a love story between two friends, two strangers, or more often between a friend and myself. Sometimes those stories were just for fun, an exercise in imagination, sometimes they were more serious. I made up a story because I wanted the story to happen.

All of the stories that I thought up for my life, then and now, they have all been upended. The story I am living out is not the one I dreamed up so long ago.

Still single. Who would have thought? Not me. Perhaps there was a friend who foresaw my lack of romance, but I didn’t. My family didn’t. And now, I don’t know what to think of it. The story writer, surprised by her own story. A year ago I would have laughed at the thought of me being surprised by anything. I found stories and patterns in the ring of a bell, in a robins twitter. Yet I can’t find them in my own life.

What kind of story is being told in my life? I still haven’t decided whether I am living a comedy or a tragedy. Perhaps it is a piece of literary fiction, beautifully written but sitting on a dusty shelf.

I haven’t decided what it is yet. But do I get to decide the story? Or is it merely my circumstances that decide it for me? I can make all the fuss I want, but a relationship is not entirely up to me. Other people will help decide that. (unless I go all psycho and kidnap someone, but that would just be weird.)

Do any of us really know what our story will be beforehand? We can make all the plans we want, but in the end, our story follows along different paths. A death of a family member, a wedding, or an unexpected opportunity all play into our stories. It is not as clear cut as at least I thought it would be when I was young and staring into the night sky.

And it isn’t even over yet. I have the rest of my life in front of me. At least 50 more years of living and laughing and adventuring. I have plans and hopes, but who knows what will happen in that time.

My story is still unwritten, for the most part. I am curious to find out what the rest will be.

Shaina Merrick

Inspiration

First, have any of you seen/noticed the changes around here? Yes, there is a new header, yes, some of the font is blue. I did do that on purpose. Whether it looks good or not remains to be seen I suppose. I also updated the Scribblings page and About Me page (that is a not so subtle hint for you to go look at them).

By the way, if you know how to link your instagram page to your blog, I would love to know. I have worked on it for hours, and followed all the directions, and it still isn’t working! So you will just have to take my word for it that I have instagram.

You know what question I dread the most when I talk about my writing? It is not when I am going to finish my novel, though I dislike that one too. It is not why I am writing.

Where do you get your story ideas?

Cue lots of blinking.

I’m sorry, what now?

I am pretty sure I know I get asked. Some authors have these beautiful stories about why they started writing a particular novel, and where they drew their inspiration from. I love hearing those stories, I hate telling them.

Because mine go something like this.

“Well, I was thinking about something random and then got this phrase in my head. This phrase had a, well, a feeling behind it. I felt what was going on, but it was all a little fuzzy. And then I sat down, picked up a pen, and sort of… Figured it out.”

Real inspiring.

I heard once, or read once, that writers are collage artists. We take bits of ideas and thoughts from everywhere and paste them into our story. Cue me nodding with wide eyes and wondering how the person knew what was going on in my head.

My ideas don’t come from one thing, they come from everywhere. Something someone says, a movie I watched, they swirl around in my brain until it turns into a smoothie. Sometimes a good smoothie, sometimes a nasty orange and green one. (looking at you weird story idea)

Often, I don’t know where I got the idea from. I just know that it appeared one day in my head. And never fully formed. I have never figured out a story from start to finish all at once. Usually, I get the beginning, and then have to start writing to figure out the end.

I wish I was one of those writers who can see the plot laid out before them before they even write one word. I have to go diligently searching for it with pen and ink.

The other reason why I don’t particularly like that question (though I will admit to asking it, sorry) is because I have so many story ideas. I am not kidding. I have notebooks full of nothing by story ideas. None of them are finished, some of them have characters, some of them have a plot, but none of them have everything. They all sit there, whispering bits of their story to me every time I look at them. Do I sound crazy? Probably. Being crazy is an occupational hazard in my line of work.

So where do I get my inspiration from? The long answer is listed above, but the short answer is I have no idea.

Shaina Merrick

Academic Writing vs. Fiction Writing.

Here recently I decided to take a series of college level online classes. Because why not. One of those ended up being English Composition I. Otherwise known as the ‘can I tear my hair out right now’ class.

I spend much of my time in the realm of words. I have a blog, I have an instagram page, I write stories, I journal. Between all of those things one would think that I would know how to write, or at least how to get my thoughts organized.

Yeah right.

Turns out that academic writing, or the infamous essay, is completely different from fictional writing (go figure). It is also different from my usual off the cuff blogging.

For one thing, there is no POV in academic writing. All of it is impersonal and if you ever say ‘you’ in the essay, you are doomed. It is considered unprofessional. In all honesty it is unprofessional, but is professionalism what I am going for in my blog posts? Only sometimes. Anyway, the point is there is no point of view. There are no characters, no plot, no tension to speak of. Unless of course it is an argumentative essay, and then the writer is bringing allll the tension to the table. *cacklesmadly*

I may or may not be writing about an extremely controversial topic for my essay. This is going to be fun.

Also, academic writing is so very, very, structured. Eheh. Yes, in fiction writing there is some structure. A plot is structure, and grammar, and punctuation. But here is the thing, I can break all of those rules in fiction, any time I want. And if I do it well enough, no one is going to care, or perhaps even notice. (looking at you Alexander Dumas)

In academic writing on the other hand, everyone is going to notice. Grammar or convention rules must be followed at all costs. Essays have a specific structure, so do paragraphs, so do sentences. There is enough structure in one 800 word essay to satisfy any outlining soul.

Can I die now? Rebellious writer over here, I find out what the rules are so I can break them.

However, in getting a crash course on paragraphs and essays (I promise did learn all of it in high school, I just promptly forgot it), was like learning to walk again. As I fussed over the way my paragraphs were lined up, it made sense why they were the way they were. There is something in my little brain that loves the organization inherent to academic writing. There is not much writers block, because you already know how things are supposed to be written, and laid out. I had an outline, and I followed it. It made certain things much, much easier.

I have a feeling what I am learning about academic writing will bleed into fiction writing as well. After all, those rules have been around for so long because they work. There is something aesthetically pleasing in having a well laid out essay. And when the paragraph works, there is not so much brain bending to be able to understand what the person is saying. Or trying to say.

So yes, academic writing is completely foreign to fiction writing. All the impersonal structure does not align itself well with good story writing. But writing it does help me to align my thoughts in an organized fashion, one that makes sense to other people besides myself.

Shaina Merrick

The Resolution

Today we are talking about conclusions. Otherwise known as the end of the book. No, not the climax, or the moment that the hero wins. The conclusion is also the called the resolution, the moment after the hero wins. When the journey is over, the task is completed, and everyone is either saved or dead.

The conclusion is what will stick with the reader long after the book has been placed back on the shelf. It is the last taste in the cake that is the novel. Mess it up, and readers will be left with a nasty taste in their mouths, and never want to pick up one of your books again.

Yes, I have written another blog post a while back on endings. (you can find it here) They are my favorite part about stories, so I ain’t apologizing.

So, how much resolution is too much? The tension is over, all the questions have been answered, there is nothing left to keep the story moving. Unless of course you wait to wrap up a side plot until after the climax, which I think is an excellent strategy, but I digress.

What you want to avoid is the after climax winning stretch. The battle has been won, love has conquered, and the story keeps going, and going, and going… Until the reader is bored to tears and skims the final few pages.

However, I have also read novels where the resolution was too short. The climax happened, the good guys smile at each other, and then ‘The End’. To be honest, this happens more often in movies than in books. I am starting to dislike the words at the end of a movie that fill in for a great resolution scene. I don’t want to read about him living happily ever after, I want to see it.

The first ending leaves the reader feeling bored, and that the story was much too long. The second ending leaves the reader feeling unsatisfied. We, as writers, don’t want either, obviously.

But it still leaves the question, how much is too much? How much is too little? I am a reader before I am a writer, and I will say that the best endings that I remember are ones that directly correlated to how long the story was.

No one, unless you are an illiterate heathen, complains about the Into the West resolution at the end of Lord of the Rings. It is technically a long resolution, but nobody cares. Because we have spent hours caring about and adventuring with those characters. We are deeply invested in them, so we want to know what happens to them.

I once read a series that had a really, really long resolution. There was a wedding, and a coronation. Chapters upon chapters of stuff happened after the climax. You might think that it would have been boring. It was not. I loved every minute because I had spent hours wishing these characters a happy ending, and now I finally got to see it.

Contrast that to a rom-com. Nothin’ much happens after that last kiss, or proposal. Maybe a quick voice over, maybe them turning around to smile at celebrating friends. Short is the rule. Why? Because we only spent ninety minutes caring about these characters. Not very long in the grand scheme of things. So in all honesty, most of the time our interest ends when the tension ends. After that we all move on with our lives.

If I wrote a short story, my resolution would be one, maybe two lines. If I wrote a novel, a few pages would suffice. As for an epic series, one chapter showing everyone’s future might be nice.

When writing your story, ask yourself this question. If you were reading this story for the first time, what would you most want to know about the characters after the battle ends? When you answer that question for yourself, write it out. The resolution exists because readers care about characters. Give your readers the satisfaction of knowing that everything was okay after that, and they will love you forever.

Shaina Merrick

Book Review: Souji

As a disclaimer, I did not finish this book. I got about halfway through and then had to stop. What I am going to be talking about is the quality of the story that I read and especially the writing style. If there is a great climax, then wonderful! Also, if you like this story, more power to you. Personally, I did not find the story to be engaging or well written. But if you liked it, feel free to just skip this post.

Souji, by Moriah Jane.

The age of samurai is coming to a close.

As the emperor claims his new capital in Edo and brings his imperialists with him, the terminally ill Okita Souji must flee his home to seek solace from his elder sister, Kin. But as his health continues to decline and the reality that his way of life, the way of the samurai, has been lost forever settles in, Souji struggles to grasp meaning and purpose for the remainder of his frail existence.

Is there a life beyond the sword for Souji and if there is, can he lay down his katana forever?

First off, may I applaud this author on such a great, great back cover blurb. I mean wow. It sounds so interesting! I actually bought this book just because of the blurb. Souji sounded exactly like my cup of tea. This, right here, is a perfect example of good marketing.

A friend of mine posted the cover reveal, I read the blurb and thought it interesting, so I wasted no time in buying the book. I even skipped my usual read a review and the ‘Look Inside’ bit on Amazon. Marketing people, it pays off.

This book had so much potential, and it fell so, so flat.

First off, the book is written in third person present tense. An unusual choice. I have nothing against it. It can be done, and done well, but you have to be a pretty good writer to pull it off.

Unfortunately, this author could not pull it off. Many times over I was startled by the tense and completely pulled out of the story because I was convinced that she had switched tenses on me. Which is worse than doing one tense badly. I am glad she didn’t switch tenses! The tense felt unnatural to the story. I am saying this as a reader who doesn’t like being pulled out a story, and as a writer. It felt like the wrong tense for the book, especially since quite a bit of it was so introspective. I think it would have worked better if the book had been in the more traditional third person past tense.

I do not want to be told what the character is feeling. Please, please do not tell me that he is confused, or mad, or happy. Phrases like ‘he felt confused’, make me wince. Show me a wrinkled brow, or a clenched cup; that speaks volumes beyond simple words. The author did stay away from telling when describing the setting, good for her, but didn’t either know or care about staying away from it when discussing a persons emotions.

On to the characters themselves. I was actually very excited for the character of Souji. I hoped that he would be a complicated character dealing with life changing things. And he was dying, not something you see in fiction every day! (at least, not something I see every day)

Once again, he has potential, but the actual character fell flat in my opinion. Souji rarely even thinks about the fact that he doesn’t have long to live. There is not much struggle in his soul about the fact that really, his side is losing the war. A few bits here and there about how sad he feels does not cut it. If a samurai is who he has always been, and always wanted to be, the struggle to accept what is going on would take up every fiber of his being.

The struggle would make for some great inner tension as he starts to get to know the villagers. In fact, what if the lie he has to tell makes him feel terrible, like he is betraying who he is? Instead, it felt like a convenient plot device to create extra tension.

Also, I really have no idea what he wants. What is Souji’s goals in life? I know, I know, everything has changed on him and maybe he doesn’t have goals right now. So what were his goals before he got sick? What did he want more than anything? I am half way through the book and I still don’t know what his motivations are. Perhaps it comes later, but I do think motivations are something you should be able to pick up on pretty early on. Motivations endear characters to us more than anything else does. It pays to have them show up in the first chapter.

The other characters aren’t much better. While I appreciated the fact that the doctor lady doesn’t hate samurai, less drama later, I did not appreciate how perfect she is. Being a chatter box does not count as a character flaw, especially since it just endears her to Souji even more. All people have flaws, therefore all characters should have flaws.

Souji’s sister and her husband also came across as flat to me, though his sister was a bit better out of the two. They were interesting, and I think they could have been much more interesting, but they did not live up to what could have been. Personally, I did not think having his brother in law dislike samurai make him any more interesting. It just made him seem cliche. When he came on the scene I was like, ‘big surprise, he dislikes Souji’. I also really dislike that side plot, so it may be a ‘me not you’ thing.

Last thing and then I will go. The world is unclear. I know Souji’s side was losing, but I still don’t know why. The book does not explain overly much (if at all) why people like the emperor over the shogun. And what was Souji’s role in the war? There is one flashback scene, and it doesn’t tell me much. I would have loved more explanation about what is going on, and less tiny details about him looking off in the sunset or rubbing a mint leaf. Being halfway through the book and your reader still being confused about important things is a bad sign.

Honestly, I think this little book could have been very interesting. There was so much potential for interest and complexity. However, the writing of the book did not live up to my expectations. The characters could have used more work, as well as the writing itself. There were a couple sweet scenes, like Souji playing hide and seek with the kids, but for the most part I was disappointed. Maybe someday I will finish the book, but I don’t know.

Shaina Merrick

The Rebellious Writer: Talk to People

In the vein of being a rebellious writer, I have another piece of non-advice (as in a piece of advice that I am stating but not shouting on the top of my lungs) for all writers out there.

Talk to people. Do not bring your notebook with you. Bring yourself, and only yourself.

A very classy thing many writers are doing, or saying that they are doing, is bringing a notebook everywhere with them. The store, the party, the library. Everywhere! Some people take them for stray ideas that come in the most irritating places. Some people are actually working on their stories. Though I will admit it is a great excuse to hide my face from socializing. And one has the rush of ‘getting things done’. Here we are, multi tasking even at a social event!

My dear writing friend. Please leave the writing notebook at home. The things you will miss will far outweigh the words you gain.

Here recently I had the immense privilege of listening in on a conversation about a way of life far outside my own. I know the things I learned about cash crops will make its way into a novel. It was too interesting not to! Though I could have been sitting there surreptitiously writing down what they were saying. I chose not to. For one, I had left my notebook in the car, and for two, I would have lost the flow of the conversation if I had.

There may be people out there who can somehow listen and write at the same time, I am not one of those people. I can either listen, or I can write. Never the twain shall meet. I would have lost so much of that conversation if I had written things down. Things like facial expressions, hand gestures, and tones of voice. So much of human conversation is through non verbal gestures, what would I have missed if I had missed those cues?

I know that as a writer, there are some things I will have to give up and just not worry about. But writing while someone is talking, especially while I am in the conversation, is considered rude in many circles. Just about as bad as scrolling through a phone. Either way, the person is not paying full attention to the conversation. It irritates me to know end when someone is not listening to my words, how do other people feel when I pull out my notebook?

About a week ago I had a conversation with an extremely interesting person. I listened rapt to all of his experiences in working and life. We talking about education, and finding a job, among other things. Hello story ideas. And I never would have learned any of that, if I had kept my head buried in my own world.

People are interesting. But you will never know why unless you talk to them. Or if you listen to them. In the first example I mentioned, I spent the whole conversation listening. And that was all. I do realize that there are people who find starting conversations scary. After all, I am one of them.

Consider this a challenge to truly pay attention wherever you are and whatever you are doing. It doesn’t matter whether you are speaking or listening. I think the notebook, and the flurry of writing notes, is a distraction to the conversation going on.

Leave the notebook at home. Listen and interact with real life people. You will have ideas. Listening to people is one of the best ways I have found to get inspiration. Soak those interesting people in. Pay attention and find out their why’s, their motivations. After all, as writers we are trying to create characters who resonate with others, not just a quirky character who only exists to be quirky.

Shaina Merrick