Reading Rec: Survival Kit for Writers Who Don’t Write Right

Overall Impression

5/5 – Even though I’m absolutely not the target audience of this book, I still learned a lot.

Summary

You may be familiar with the terms “plotter” and “pantser” floating around the writing community. If not, plotters are writers who prefer to outline their stories before starting a draft, pantsers are writers who prefer to discover their story along the way, and plantsers are somewhere in between. Those of you who have been around this blog long enough might be familiar with my neurotically overcomplicated outlines, and exhaustive editing process, from when I shared blank templates of both documents. So why then, did I read a book dedicated to the improvisation masters in the audience?

I was curious.

In each of those posts, I tried to clarify that this is just my process. I have methods that work, so feel free to try them if you want. People asked; I answered. Big Blinking Disclaimer: Results may vary. Pass go, collect your $200. I have a goldfish brain so I need to write everything down to remember a thing, and I think in loose webs of connections and pictures, so I need everything externalized in order to put it in order before I start anything. This also applies to real-life in case you hadn’t noticed from my habitual list-making. Doing it any other way sounds terrifying, but it works for TONS of people, so there’s got to be some merit here that I’m missing. Who knows, maybe I’ll try writing without an outline for my next short story, and see how it goes?

If you’re one of these mysterious discovery writers, this book is for you. Patricia McLinn discusses how bad-faith, dogmatic writing advice and industry standards constantly made her process feel inadequate, until she met others like her. She provides useful tools, tips, dos, and do nots for learning how to experiment with different models without losing her own course, and how to think critically about your writing habits to continue improving them. Part 4 is full of advice for approaching story-structure, character arcs, themes, and file organization from a top-down view, arranging the pieces in order once you have created them, rather than building from the ground up. She also includes brain-hacks to motivate yourself to write and how to avoid guilt.

As I’m slogging through my Storge and Runaways revision, I could sympathise with many of the struggles she mentioned, looking back at the story and realizing you would need to completely restructure parts of it to work properly. Even the most detailed of outlines can’t save you from developmental edits and many of her tips helped me think about my problems from a different perspective and unlock new solutions. It was fascinating to hear from a discovery writer how hostile the market is to their process, despite her huge success and dozens of published works. I want to try and make my corner of the internet inclusive and a space for discussion and sharing resources, because we all have so much to learn from each other. No matter your writing style, I highly recommend checking out this book.

You can find Patricia McLinn and her other fiction books (mostly mystery and romance genres) on her website. Thanks for reading this review! If you like my blog and want to support my writing projects, please consider donating to my Ko-Fi. Next week I’ll be sharing a recently edited excerpt from Storge. Until then, Happy Writing!

Book Review: 8 Steps to a Side Character

Overall Impression

5/5 craft book with an easily accessible style that gave my poor frazzled engineering brain a much needed break from academic drivel, extremely useful summaries that made writing his article about 1,000,000x easier, and rock solid advice I will immedietly be adapting into my ever-expanding Storge excel outline.

Content Summary

Step 1: WTF is a Side Character – This chapter explains the kinds of roles a side character can play in a story. Every character is a plot device; they are vehicles we use to tell the story, but side characters have to do their job from the sidelines, which leaves them in a unique position to meet needs we can’t get from our protagonists. Sacha explains the difference between cameos, minor, and major side characters, to help authors understand the amount of attention each deserves.

Step 2: The Web of Connectivity and Theme – The plot, characters, setting, motifs, and metaphors you use in a story all work together to create your theme, regardless of if you know what that theme is. It’s worth building these pieces with intentionality to make sure they thread together as seamlessly as possible. This chapter discusses how side characters can contribute by challenging the protagonist, representing the theme through their choices, or flipping the script as part of their arc. It also talks about believing theme lies vs theme truths, and how you can use these juxtapositions to create complex inter-character dynamics.

Step 3: Flesh and Blood – Why are your side characters here in the first place? Why are they described like that? This chapter unleashes the inner two-year-old to interrogate your cast for their motivations, positive and negative traits, backstories, and the descriptive details that make them interesting and memorable. It also talks about how to pull off flashbacks, surprises, humor to deepen their POVs and hone their voices. But with so much work going into these guys, it’s also important to understand how to anchor them in the reader’s memory so they don’t get lost among a large cast, and how their relationship with the protagonists takes shape. If you need a primer on creating a side character from the ground up, this chapter is a good place to start.

Step 4: Voice of an Angel – Here resides the most useful definition of Author vs Character Voice I have ever found. I always assumed Voice was some nebulous assesment of your writing style that was a pass/fail scenario. You have a unique and interesting voice, or you don’t. It’s impossible to quanitfy and incredibly difficult to intentionally develop if you don’t know what kind of voice you want to have. This chapter breaks down the process in a way that FINALLY makes sense. It talks about how to use a hero lens and split it into action, dialouge, thoughts, and feelings to convey the character beneathe the words.

Step 5: What do they do anyway? – This chapter details the common archetypes that side characters take in a story, such as the sidekick/best friend, mentor, foil, comic relief, etc. Each role covered includes structure tips, mistakes, and both good and bad examples for you to reference when slotting your side characters into these spots.

Step 6: Arc Weaving – This chapter breaks down all the different types of arcs you can give your side characters: Positive, negative, static, change, growth, and fall. It also talks about how to set up the stakes in order to give the story momentum and the reader a reason to keep turning the page. Character development through the story is what makes them so compelling, so knowing now to build arcs that intersect with plot beats is essential to mastering pacing.

Step 7: Killing your Darlings – Following the idea of establishing the stakes, this chapter shows you what can go wrong if they don’t meet their goals. Side characters are unfortunetly, by nature, more expendible than our heros, so it’s important to make these deaths count in order to carry the emotional weight. This chapter goes over intangible deaths – important losses that hurt the character but leave them breathing, and properly putting them 6 feet under. Sacha shares shit and solid reasons to kill characters, how to make them work before, or during, the story, and how to deal with the reactions of the other characters. Following this guide ensures no character’s death will be without consequence.

Step 8: Fight to the Death – This chapter deals with conflict and how to most effectively cause problems for our beloved fictional children. It goes over inner, micro, macro, and story conflict, and how to build tension to the story’s complex to resolve in a satisfying ending.

Final Thoughts

I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to take their writing craft to the next level of professionalism, who’s endeavoring upon a 2nd draft, or who’s side characters have hijacked the plot and taken it careening off a cliff. A warning that it’s quite sweary for anyone who minds that, but I think Sacha understands how to write with intention, and the cusses served to illustrate a point, which I appreciate haha. You can find Sacha’s other books on goodreads, listen to her Rebel Author Podcast for more advice from industry experts during their interviews, and find all her other info on her website.

Thanks for reading! Next week I’ll be sharing a Storge excerpt from the perspective of one of my favorite characters, Keenan, who’s a Debilan guard in the Atilan court. If you like my blog and want to support my writing projects, please consider donating to my Ko-Fi. Until then, happy writing! 🙂

Reading Rec: Terebinth Tree Chronicles

Hello everyone and welcome back to another reading rec! This month I want to talk about an author that I’ve enjoyed for quite a while now: Faye Fite. I found her blog back in high school when she still wrote under her other name, and the perspective she shared in her writing advice inspired me to get serious about my writing. Her books introduced me to the indie publishing space and the worlds of possibilities that open when you can control the content of your stories. Faye writes Christian speculative fiction that isn’t preachy and features badass disabled characters.

The Terebinth Tree Chronicles is a series of high fantasy short stories that share the backstories of Wanderer, Jayel, and Ailith – the future protagonists of an epic who are on a mission to assassinate the dark lord that’s plagued their world and ruined their families. Currently, three books have been released in this series: Colors of Fear, Flames of Courage, and Sounds of Deceit, but there are more on the way! Faye also has a few standalone books, including Skies of Dripping Gold, and So I Accidentally Killed the Chosen One, which are both part of the same expanded story-world as the Terebinth Tree Chronicles, called the “Torn Universe.” I’m not sure how they all connect yet, but it’s a really cool concept! Faye is also a member of the Phoenix Fiction Writers, and has published three short stories in their anthologies.

I can wholeheartedly recommend all of her writing, but today I especially want to focus on the characters in the Chronicles and how their arcs are set up to have satisfying conclusions within each backstory book, but leave enough open-ended questions for the rest of the series to continue building.

Colors of Fear

The first book in the series follows the story of Wanderer, a desert elf who’s desperate to join the Hunters – an elite group of fighters dedicated to taking down the dark lord, Elgar. Three out of five Hunters dye within their first year of service, but he has a family to protect: his mother and chronically ill younger brother, Twig. While his brother wastes away from the disease that plagues their world – called Muria – Wanderer recovered, only to be left with a strange ability. He sees emotion as blinding color.

“Some days, he couldn’t even see the sky through his fears.”

When the colors choke his vision and make him stumble on the qualifying obstacle course, the Hunters turn Wanderer away, and force him to find a different path. He must choose between staying home, and watching his brother suffer, or leaving, following the orange strings, pulling him West, and putting his life on the line to kill Elgar and end their suffering once and for all.

Flames of Courage

The second book in the series follows Jayel – a partially deaf she-elf who also wanted to join the Hunters. Despite a perfect run, she’s turned away for her half-blood status. Boiling with anger, she returns to town, where she finds a slave trader abusing another young half-blood boy. Jayel springs to his defense, and when she escapes the guards and makes it home to her mentor Shelumiel, she’s concocted a new mission: bring justice to her people. Shelumiel warns her she won’t be able to accomplish her goals alone, that her plan is half-formed and that she must learn how to wield a sword. Unwilling to be dissuaded, Jayel sets off into the desert alone.

A day’s journey and a sandstorm later, she finally reaches the Spirit-Arch, a gateway to Maiah’s afterlife. There, she’s attacked by a human magician, and a slave, sent by Elgar to kill her. In self-defense, Jayel’s fire powers erupt, and betray her true identity as one of the Athelan – the Holy Warriors of Maiah. Upon realizing that she’s fighting slave, Jayel tries to persuade the magician to surrender. The woman reveals that if she doesn’t bring Jayel back to Elgar, he will kill her village. There are no right answers, and no innocent parties. When the fight finally ends, Jayel is left mourning the stranger and holding her blade.

“It was a lie. I don’t protect. I just… fight. For me. Not for anyone else.”

With her plan in shambles, Jayel follows the last directive she has left – learn how to use a sword. She continues West, and encounters a familiar figure – a fellow fighter, an elf cursed by colors, and a partner in training. The story ends with a hopeful, resolute tone. We don’t know how their stories will end, but we know that there’s a cause worth fighting for.

Sounds of Deceit

The third book in the series doesn’t take place in the same desert as Wanderer and Jayel’s stories. In a city controlled entirely by Elgar’s forces, Ailith and her brother Durran are ex-Hunters who struggle to survive by taking dangerous jobs from the remaining Faithful. Her powerful magic lets her perform incredible feats at the expense of her sanity, as the cacophony of noise that accompanies each spell causes her incapacitating brain-fog. She takes impulsive risks to distract herself from the lies and fear that rule her life, but that changes when they’re approached one night by Wymund – an acquaintance from their Hunter days. He asks them to join the group that plans to assassinate Elgar, but the siblings refuse to break their self-imposed exile.

As Ailith watches the suffering in the city, she keeps her head down. In the shadow of the clock-tower, she hides when she could help the Faithful being persecuted, because she is afraid of her magic, and is losing faith herself. With the encouragement of her elderly priestess friend, Nyara, and the long pressures of her past, she reaches a breaking point.

“I want our pain to be worth something… I want to stand tall.”

That night, they take out the guards, free the Faithful caged within, and destroy the clock tower that tormented her with its noise all along. She’s taken the leap of faith, and though we don’t know where it will take her, there is a promise that her power will prove to be a blessing in the end, when she joins forces with the other protagonists to set their world to rights.

If any of these stories sound interesting to you, I highly recommend you check out Faye’s site and read her books! These are just some of a wonderful universe to explore, and I hope you enjoyed learning a little more about the characters. Make sure you check back next week to read our interview, but until then, Happy Writing! 🙂


Wonder and Wisdom: The Time Quintent

For a book that is included on every elementary recommended reading list and has been adapted into several feature-length films, I believe that A Wrinkle in Time is a criminally underrated book, and the rest of the series even more so. It’s difficult to explain my attachment to this series, but the unparalleled Madeline L’Engle created characters and a world in her works so interesting that I regularly reread and take inspiration from them to this day. So today, I want to write a tribute to my favorite children’s author. For readers, please take this as a wholehearted recommendation. For writers, this is my attempt to break down what makes L’Engle’s writing so impactful, so we can learn from her style and craft similarly beautiful works ourselves.

Capturing Wonder

For a brief, illuminating second, Meg’s face had the listening, probing expression that was so often seen on Charles’s. ‘I see!’ she cried. ‘I got it! For just a moment I got it! I can’t possibly explain it now, but there for a second I saw it!”

A Wrinkle in Time, on the Tesseract

Children are creative scientists – their entire existence centers on learning more about the world each day, and learning how to make their own place in it. If you’re reading this, you probably never lost that spark of curiosity. We live for this moment of epiphany, even as we know there is an ENDLESS amount of information yet to explore. I think this is also why speculative fiction is so appealing. Not only do we have our world to explore, but we can make whole worlds with our imaginations, be they mystical realms or distant planetoids.

In a book where the magic system works through physics and 5th dimensions, she also doesn’t shy away from the metaphysical questions of good and evil. This series treats religion and science as two different, but not opposed, methods of discovering truth. The characters grapple with questions about their place in the cosmos, what is means to be good or evil, and the nature of love. The concepts are never dumbed down, though the prose is accessible to an elementary audience. Reading these books gave me the vocabulary to talk about these ideas and made me feel like I deserved to be taken seriously. We contextualize our experiences in terms of stories, and what we don’t yet understand, we call magic.

L’Engle takes this philosophy to heart with her choice of genre. She doesn’t just blur the line between allegory, mythology, fantasy, and science fiction; she posits that there is no distinction. With every possibility open to experimentation, she created a unique spin on our universe that captured my imagination as a child. This is the book that made me say, “I want to write like this one day.”

Encouragement

“A book, too, can be a star, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.”

Madeline L’Engle

Throughout the series, the characters must fight various forces of evil, which seek to tear apart their family and their word. Just because children are young doesn’t mean they don’t encounter evil. Good protectors may shelter them from harm, but they still meet it in the daily troubles of school and home life, and without stable parents and guardians, they are even more vulnerable. This book is honest. Meg and Charles deal with bullies. Their father is missing. Their teachers and principal are unfair. Life is pain, highness, and anyone who says otherwise is selling something.

But you can fight back. The story shows the characters putting their lives on the line to protect their loved ones. Their actions prove you can fight IT. The black thing is huge and terrifying, but it is not all-powerful. Meg both beats and forgives her bullies. They might not release the people of Camazotz, but they save their father. It is inspiring to read about this bittersweet, stubborn hope overcoming an evil greater than any one person. The characters earn a happy ending, but at no point do you take their struggle for-granted and it always struck me as more real than much of children’s media that takes a saccharine-saturated optimistic view of the world.

Belonging

“A self is not something static, tied up in a pretty parcel and handed to the child, finished and complete. A self is always becoming.”

A Circle of Quiet

Meg is an oddball – the “before” of every teen makeover with frizzy brown hair, thick glasses, and braces, a math genius that’s failing her other classes, quick with a witty comeback that infuriates her teachers, too impulsive and honest, which makes her socially awkward around her peers, and overly protective of a “dumb” brother. Charles is a pre-schooler who speaks in well-articulated sentences and comprehends complex metaphysical ideas, but refuses to interact with anyone outside his immediate family. Yet, their mother never belittles them for their eccentricities – she seeks accommodations, such as homeschooling or getting a typewriter, and gives her daughter gentle guidance to help weather the trials of growing up. The Murry family also accepts Calvin, who can mask his oddness to fit into a social norm, but feels out of place amongst his own siblings. Their home is a warm and welcoming shelter from the storms of both societal shunning and thundering wild nights. If you blew into town like Mrs. Whatsit, they wouldn’t hesitate to sit you around their kitchen table for a midnight sandwich.

But belonging does not mean conformity, and Meg resists IT’s statement that “everyone is equal, everyone exactly alike.” At home, they can be themselves without fear of judgement or retaliation, rather than changing who they are to avoid judgement and retaliation. Fiction is so often escapist, and giving the characters a place to retreat for comfort and safety also gives the reader that feeling of security. Whether it’s on the utopian Uriel or on Ixchel with Aunt Beast, L’Engle shows how important it is to have a small but close-knit community to act as a support structure, even when the evil is something you must face alone.

“Life, with its rules, its obligations, and its freedoms, is like a sonnet: You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself.”

Mrs. Whatsit

Did you read this book as a child? What did you think of it then, compared to now? Please let me know what you think! Happy reading and writing. 🙂

5 ways to Encourage Kids to Read

When he was ten, my little brother was not a “fan” of anything. He enjoyed certain tv shows, but never got invested in the story and rarely read voluntarily, much to our mother’s chagrin. Mostly, he hung out with his jock of an older brother who poked fun at the fandom and writerly shenanigans of my marvel-obsessed sister and I, the resident Nerd and Author who “Care Too Much” about fictional worlds. Today, my twelve-year-old brother finished a 12-page-long original story, and is working his way through Lord of the Rings.

Around the same time, at the start of 2020, I was in one of the worst reading slumps of my LIFE. High school literature classes and a busy college/work schedule took my reading habit from several books a week to 1 or 2 a year. Thanks to a few beloved friends’ encouragement, I started the Stormlight Archive, and bounced back to reading over 30 books by this past year.

I’m not a teacher, or a parent, but I have learned a few things from watching his development these past two years, and watching the tricks that my friends pulled on me. For anyone else who spends a lot of time with impressionable kids and wants to play the (incredibly fun) role of neighborhood eccentric that sends children on adventures, here are 5 ways to encourage them to read.

1) Meet them where their interests lie

This transformation started with Avatar the Last Airbender. It just came out on Netflix, and we watched it as a family during the quarantine at the start of COVID. I could include him in conversations with my sister about fan-theories and subtext, and it made him feel grown-up to participate and contribute. When he came up with his own daydreams, I asked him to write his updates for me, and directed him to more reading material. Likewise, my friends indulgently listened to my writing rambles and gently nudged me toward a series they knew I would enjoy based on the similar tropes.

Try to introduce kids to similar genres as the ones they already enjoy. If they like a video game or tv-show, try to find novelizations or comics to accompany it. Show them how to use a library catalogue to look up the author’s last name and find other books. Listen to their rambles and ask questions, instead of just nodding and smiling. I’m sure we can all remember how hurtful, dismissive adults were when we shared our interests as kids. If they can trust you to be a supportive friend, they’ll be more receptive to your input in the future. I will accept recommendations from those same friends now with no questions asked because I trust their judgement on my taste in books.

2) Tell them stories

Making dinner? Weeding the garden? Folding laundry? Instead of putting on music or a movie for background noise, ask them if they want to hear a story. Humans have been telling tall tales over the household chores since the beginning of time, and oral storytelling is one of the most powerful gateways to voluntary silent reading. Tell them about crazy things you did when you were their age. Share your favorite fairy tales from that one obscure book in the back of the library. Pass the plot back and forth in a “choose your own adventure” never-ending story to let them contribute. Frame it as a fun way to make the chore less painful, and if they enjoy the story time, you might find them coming back to help if it means they can hear what happens next.

3) Don’t Gatekeep

Do they want to read comics? Fanfiction? Chapter books below their grade level? An epic that might be too advanced? Let them! If it’s fun, they’ll keep reading, and eventually move onto other types of literature as their tastes change. If it becomes a chore, they’ll lose interest and give up. This is exactly the tactic that English class pulled on me to put me into a 3-year-long reading slump. It says something dire when the most interesting and uplifting book we read all year was an account of the Armenian Genocide from a survivor’s descendent. If you want to nudge them toward the classics, there are easier methods than assigning something from an arbitrary reading list as homework.

4) Read together, Share favorites

Related to the above point about telling stories, never underestimate the sacred power of the bed-time read-aloud or a book club. Taking the time to read with someone else proves that you think the story is worthwhile, and there’s a special kind of joy in watching someone discover something you love. Take it from the Princess Bride.

If you know they will never pick up a certain book, such as a difficult classic, a long book they don’t have time for, or something outside their usual genre, reading it aloud to them is an excellent incentive. It outsources the work of reading to someone else and allows their hands to be free to play with blocks or work while they can still enjoy the story. If you don’t have the time to do a read-aloud, buying or renting them an audiobook can also be effective! I do most of my reading nowadays in the car while commuting to work.

5) Reward Initiative

The Annual Library Summer Reading Program was my bread and butter growing up. You logged how many minutes you read each day, which stacked onto your total tally. When you reached 200, 400, 600, and 800 minutes, you could redeem prizes and free books from the display. If you don’t have access to such a program, or it’s not summer, proposing your own challenge can take advantage of a competitive streak. Once, I bet my brother that he couldn’t read all 28 of the original Magic Tree House books before his birthday, and when he posted that last badge in his passport, he won a one-on-one ice cream date with me.

For me now, the chance to ramble about stories with my friends is incentive enough. They’re often subjected to “live-reactions” as I text my running theories. We usually meet up once I finish to have a debrief and share predictions for the next book. It’s nice to see them and share the excitement while taking a break from homework. And hey, I won’t say no to ice cream either.

Thank you for reading this post! I wish you the best of luck on all your bibliophilic adventures! Have a great day, and happy writing! 🙂

Symbolism in Addie La Rue

I first encountered The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab on bookstagram where it seemed like everyone was discussing the story. This novel hit the NY Times Bestseller List for 37 weeks straight through July this year, and not without good reason. In my opinion, the story more than lives up to the hype, and it is so effectively compelling because of the symbolism Schwab weaves through the narrative. Today I want to discuss three of the most important motifs that make Addie’s story so memorable and how aspiring authors can learn from Schwab’s writing to create meaningful symbols of their own. This will contain some spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book yet, beware of that before reading.

Synopsis:

Adeline LaRue is a young woman living in the small town of Villon, France in 1741, who desperately wants to see more of the world. She feels trapped in an engagement she doesn’t want, and fears the headlong rushing of time, saying, “I don’t want to live and die in the same ten meter plot.” Her faith is torn between the Christian God of her parent’s and the old gods of her elder friend, Estele. On the night of her wedding, she flees into the woods and pleas for some higher power to save her from her fate, and the night answers. Despite Estele’s warnings to never pray to the gods who answer after dark, Adeline strikes a deal with him. At first, she offers a wooden ring, carved for her as a child by her father, but the god doesn’t deal in “trinkets.” They bargain, and draw their terms: immortality in exchange for her soul when she doesn’t want it anymore.

When she returns to the town, she finds that everyone she knew has forgotten her. She cannot remind them of her name, because every time she tries to speak the words, they get stuck in her throat. She cannot write or leave any permanent mark. Any interactions “reset” the curse. As soon as the other person walks away, they forget her again. However, she can steal. She takes some bare essentials and a wooden bird from her father’s workshop before fleeing the town. The story follows Addie – no longer Adeline – between her past through the centuries, and modern day NYC, as she navigates her curse and meets Henry Strauss, the first person in over 300 years who remembers her.

Continue reading

6 Types of Framing Structures

Framing Structures are a literary device used to add context to a story for the benefit of the audience’s understanding or deepening the experience. They’re everywhere in fiction, but how can you choose which one works best for your story? In my experience, they fit into one of the following six categories, which I’ve defined for you today! Each has different purposes, strengths, and weaknesses, and none is better than the others, so this article takes an analytical look at what makes them work well, and includes examples to illustrate. So let’s get into the trope talk, shall we?

Passed down

These are stories that start with one character (normally an elder) passing down a story to a younger audience that serves as a reader stand in. We hear the story within a story through the lens of the character hearing it for the first time. This is often the simplest kind of framing sequence and creates a feeling of familiarity or relatability with the framing characters. Writers understand the joy of telling a story to an enraptured audience, and who hasn’t sat for a read-aloud as a child? This framing sequence also brings the story into our world, and people may want to go find the story from the story. A great example of his framing structure is The Princess Bride (both the movie and book), where the grandfather tells the story to his sick grandson, and the author makes snarky commentary in the margins.

Recounted

This structure is very similar to the “Passed Down” structure with one key difference – the character doing the storytelling exists diegetically or in-universe. The scale of this frame can vary from the protagonist recounting their entire life story to a new acquaintance to sharing a short tale between characters as they sit around the campfire. This is another common and relatively simple structure that can be used to great effect for immersion or demonstrating a moral. Often, at the end of the story, a character might explain what they or the subjects learned from the experience and how they came to be in the current situation. These can take a first or third person approach and the form of a retrospective or in media res, where the reader is filled in on the history as necessary. The audience learns more about the world through the characters, as this is a great way to sneak in subtle exposition. It also helps you learn about the characters themselves. Are they an unreliable narrator or lecturing their subject?

An example of this structure is seen in A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness, where the monster tells Conor three stories in exchange for his truth. This is one of the oldest examples of a framing sequences as well, being found in One Thousand and One Nights, where the storyteller is a woman in the sultan’s court who receives a death sentence, but tells the king a story each night, never ending it before dawn so that she can postpone her execution one more day. After One Thousand and One Nights of stories, the king decides to spare her life. (For further reading, The Library of Congress has a fascinating article on this.)

Dream Sequence

This structure is very useful for playing with surreality and fantastical elements without breaking the status quo. It allows endless what-if scenarios to put the characters through a gauntlet of incredible (or horrifying) experiences without necessarily putting them in physical harm, though the stakes can be raised if what hurts the character in the dream world can also hurt them in real life. Sometimes this trope gets a bad rap for being used as a fake-out, but dreams give us a deeper look into a character’s psyche, especially if they’re not the type to share their emotions externally. The Matrix is the quintessential example of this trope, but my personal favorite is my good friend Quinn’s book, Dream’s Shadow, which takes this framing sequence to the next level in a way I’ve never seen pulled off so well. If you’re interested in reading more about this WIP, you can read our conversation here!

Nested

Nested structure is an exponential version of the recounted structure, where a character begins to tell their own story, then takes a tangent to explain an element of that story. This gives a “story inside a story inside a story inside a…” situation, which can provide more depth to the world and set up foreshadowing for future plot points to come back later. This is less common in modern literature, which is as streamlined and trimmed as possible, but it can be seen often in classic literature. In Frankenstein, the framing character is the sister of a sea captain receiving his letters from an artic expedition. The captain comes across Victor Frankenstein who tells him the story of how he arrived in the artic, which includes telling the Creature’s story of how he survived abandonment by hiding near a family cottage, which includes telling the story of that family, and then backing out of the layers towards the present. The entire novel is told in retrospect using a dive in-climb out model.

Another subset of this is the tangent-setup nesting structure, which is seen in The Count of Monte Cristo. Every few chapters when Dumas explores a new plot thread, it may seem like he’s simply getting distracted and exploring unnecessary backdrop – I remember when first reading, I found the Italian Bandit and Haydee subplots to be tedious, but just when I thought I’d forgotten about the event, the characters return to play a role in the final revenge schemes. It’s pulled off so well I wrote a 4 part analysis last year, so if you’re interested in learning more about this, I’ve linked the first part here.

Epistolary

Epistolary framing structures tell a story through letters, newspaper clippings, journal entries, and the everyday writings of characters interacting with the plot. Often, each snippet contains one limited POV, and the sum of each part gradually reveals more about the story through the eyes of the narrating character. This format is especially useful for mysteries and suspense where keeping the audience partially in the dark is important to the plot, and they allow for an extremely narrow focus on character psychology. Dracula is the best example of this framing structure, and I also wrote this post breaking down why it works so well for the horror genre if you’re interested in reading more.

Discovered

In a discovered plot, the framing character is an investigator of some sort collecting clues about what’s really going on. This framing structure is not unique to serial mysteries, but this is perhaps one of the most common examples, where an anthology of standalone adventures gradually builds to an overarching meta plot. While it is difficult to pull off, the culmination of events can be extremely satisfying, and red-string brigades will have a blast trying to connect the dots before the framing character does. This structure also supplies endless rewatch/relisten/reread value as you can go back and pick out the foreshadowing in each episode. My favorite example of this trope is Rusty Quill’s The Magnus Archives, a horror fiction podcast that has some of the best setup/payoff delivery of any work I’ve seen.

Which framing structure is your favorite? Have you read, watched, or listened to any of the examples provided here? Are you using a certain framing structure in your wip? Tell me about it in the comments, let’s start a discussion. Thank you for reading, and happy writing!

In the Dark – Dracula

Hello my friends, it has been a hot minute since I last shared a reading rec, but what better month to get back into it than October! Today I want to share my personal favorite classic horror novel, and break down what makes it work so well. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the characters of Dracula from pop-culture, but they’re often so far removed from the original context that the concepts lose their teeth (heh). To understand why Dracula became such a ubiquitous icon of the vampire horror genre, we need to revisit why people feared him in the first place. For this article, I’ll be referring to the book with italics, and the character in normal text, to avoid confusion. This will also include spoilers, since I stand by a copyright-spoiler expiration policy. If you want to read the book for free, a copy is available from Project Gutenberg (which is what I used to find my excerpts.)

I’d also like to preface this with a disclaimer that if you’ve read the SparkNotes summary, this article will have a much different analysis. In my opinion, the SparkNotes takes a bad-faith assumption that treats the male characters as sex-motivated repressed Victorians who ignore religion for scientific advancement and fear Strong Women ™. I disagree, but I encourage you to read the book and both analyses to form your own opinion. If you’ve read the book already, leave a comment to start a discussion!

Framing Structure

Dracula is an epistolary novel, told through a series of 1st person journal entries, letters, and newspaper clippings. Bram Stoker introduces us first to Jonathan Harker, who meets Dracula at his Transylvanian castle and experiences the threat first hand, and isolated from the rest of the characters. His diary entries show his desperation and fear as he tries to escape, then cut off, leaving us to wonder if he’s still alive.

The story then cuts to an exchange between Mina Harker and her friend Lucy. Through these letters, we meet the most of the rest of the supporting cast: Dr. Seward, Arthur Holmwood, and Quincey Morris, the three men who propose to Lucy. During this portion of the story, the tension is low, but since it comes after Jonathan’s diary entries, we know that the threat is still out there. Stoker creates a feeling of dread as we wait for the Dracula to reappear. When he does, the characters remain oblivious to the growing horrors that plague their town, as they lack the context of Jonathan’s experience. The dread becomes dramatic irony, as the characters live in ignorance and the reader watches the events unfold, unable to warn them.

This framing sequence throughout the book also maintains a sense of mystery, as the reader still doesn’t know Dracula’s whereabouts or ultimate plan until halfway through the story. We learn more about the true series of events alongside the characters as they collect pieces of evidence and put the full picture together. Once the characters are on the same page (literally, after they transcribe and share notes), the festering slow burn becomes a race against the clock as they try to prevent Dracula from destroying England, and the world, once and for all. The act of transcribing the details of the events immediately after the fact also gives us a view of the scene as the character themself tells the story and reflects on their experience. The way they choose to describe the settings and feelings helps to build up the tone of dread and terror throughout the story.

The Characters

Every character in this book is memorable and lovable in their own way. Through their writing, we gain insight into each personality and how each views the world. Dr. Seward is analytical, Jonathan is straightforward, Lucy is romantic, and Mina is emotional and perceptive. We also get to see how they perceive the others. It’s wholesome to hear Seward and Quincey praising the qualities of Arthur when he gets the girl instead of him, and saying he’s happy that Lucy is happy. Mina’s and Jonathan’s love gives them hope amid the disaster. Whenever one member of the group does something especially brave or clever, we only hear about the event from their friend recounting the glory of the deed. The framing sequence gives us a deeper insight into the group dynamics, and it became one of the sweetest found families I’ve ever read. When adaptations remove the characters from this POV, they also lose this interpersonal element of internal admiration, which the original captures so well. Mina remarks of her new friends:

Dr. Seward went about his work of going his round of the patients; when he had finished, he came back and sat near me, reading, so that I did not feel too lonely whilst I worked. How good and thoughtful he is; the world seems full of good men—even if there are monsters in it.

From Mina Harker’s Journal

By creating these dynamics that invest the reader, Stoker also raises the stakes. Losing any one member of the group would devastate to all the others, and when Dracula attacks Lucy and Mina, it’s not only scary, it’s also tragic. We feel their grief through their personal writings, in a way they don’t always share publically, so we know what they’re suffering when their friends don’t. We also see how they lean on each other for support when it is too much to bear alone, and this combination of dynamics makes the story compelling for more than just the titular character.

The Stakes

This is a Catholic book!

Even if you’re not religious, I believe anyone can still enjoy the story by experiencing the threat through the lens of the characters who wholeheartedly believe in the Christian afterlife. To them, vampires are an affront against God’s holy plan of salvation. Dracula is a murderer and a rapist, but beyond that, he also brings other people into the living hell of immortality against their will. This is a sin paramount to the others, as the Bible condemns leading others into sin: “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” from Luke 17:2.

There are also exponential implications past Dracula’s immediate influence. Each victim that loses their humanity goes onto turn other people and terrorize their local communities with a single-minded blood-thirst. Van Helsing likens this to a plague and insists that they must stop the cycle before it is too late. It leaves you wondering how many people he’s indirectly hurt throughout the years, and how many times this tragic story has played out in the past. From the weeping townsfolk pressing crucifixes into Jonathan’s hand, we can take a guess.

It takes convincing from Helsing for Seward, Quincey, and Arthur to accept the existence of vampires.

My thesis is this: I want you to believe.”

“To believe what?”

“To believe in things that you cannot…Now that you are willing to understand, you have taken the first step to understand.”

Van Helsing and Dr. Seward

As soon as they have the faith to listen, Van Helsing systematically proves what he knows to be true, proving that science and faith rely on each other and the characters value both in their approach to the world. He takes the men to the graveyard that evening and they see first-hand how vampire-Lucy has lost almost every shred of her humanity. At first, Seward (who recounts the event) is still skeptical, but his disbelief is born out of love for Lucy and desperate fear. With the evidence staring him in the face, he doesn’t want it to be true, because that means the only just and merciful solution is to kill the vampire that took the soul of their friend. They decide to let Arthur strike the final blow. As her would-be husband, they know Lucy would want to be laid to rest beside him, and this is the closest she can have. Vampire-Lucy beckons him to join her, but she is selfish and callous, wearing the appearance but completely replacing the kind and generous woman they knew. Arthur still has to kill her, so she will stop killing children, and it is just as much justice for Lucy as it is a tragedy. He considers it an honor to be the one to drive a stake through her heart, and let her have the peaceful death and chance at true eternal life and happiness in heaven that she deserves.

Thematic Inversion

It is also worth noting how Dracula perverts what the heroes see as good and holy for his own means. When he speaks about the vampire ladies in his court, Luca, and Mina, his language is possessive and obsessive. He sees the women as his property, compared to the men who speak with devotion about the ones they love. Jonathan and Helsing exclude Mina at first from the meetings to discuss how to deal with Dracula, a fact they deeply regret later when the Count attacks Mina. Love and a desire to protect motivate their choice, rather than dismissal.

Van Helsing obtains a dispensation to use the Eucharist (God’s body, blood, soul, and divinity under the appearance of bread and wine), to use against the evil. When it touches her, she burns, and in her later diary entries, her grief hurts just as much. As soon as the men realize their failure, they go out of their way to support Mina and respect her input, which ultimately helps them create their final battle plan. But even as they scheme, Jonathan remarks on how the vampire’s influence compromises his position:

To one thing I have made up my mind: if we find out that Mina must be a vampire in the end, then she shall not go into that unknown and terrible land alone. I suppose it is thus that in old times one vampire meant many; just as their hideous bodies could only rest in sacred earth, so the holiest love was the recruiting sergeant for their ghastly ranks.

Jonathan Harker’s Journal

There is also a symbolic perversion of the presence of blood throughout the book. Christians believe that we are saved from sin and eternal death through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross – his blood fulfilling the Moasic covenant from the Passover, where the blood of an unblemished lamb saved Israelite families from the angel of death. Stoker’s inclusion of the Sacred Host throughout the story, treated with the utmost reverence and not simply as a fantastical tool, makes a clear (but oft overlooked in pop culture) parallel between Mina made unclean by the blood of Dracula, but saved through the blood of Christ.

How can writers use Dracula to develop their stories?

  • Using limited or first person POVS and/or unreliable narrators preserves the mystery and fear of the unknown
  • Revealing the twist to the reader but not the character creates dramatic tension and dread
  • If the reader falls in love with your characters, any deaths or threats will hurt more. Likewise, hurting a character’s loved ones is a gut punch. Or worse, forcing your characters to hurt their loved ones for their own good.
  • Ask what your characters have to lose? Is their humanity or free will at stake? What would be a fate worse than death?
  • How does evil warp what the character’s love? Can you twist any symbols or themes into dark mirrors of themselves to create a poignant parallel between the heroes and the villains?
  • What separates a hero from a villain? How close do your characters get to turning? Having them walk the knife’s blade between good and evil can make for excellent drama, especially if they’re conflicted about their state/actions.

I hope you found this analysis interesting and useful! It was fun to revisit this format after so long, just in time for Halloween. Do you agree with what I have to say? Did you learn something new, or use any of the questions to develop your characters? Leave a comment below, and let’s start a discussion. I’m curious to see what you have to tell me. Thank you for reading, and happy writing!

Reading Rec: How to Market a Book by Ricardo Fayet

Hello dear readers! This month’s book review is a little different from my usual fare because I’m covering a non-fiction craft book. Following last week’s post, I was motivated to dig into some deeper research on marketing, and was pleased to stumble across this How-To guide from one of my favorite resources. Today I’ll be sharing some notes and major take-aways that I hadn’t already learned from my earlier research! Hopefully this will include some insightful new information

How to Market a Book: Overperform in a Crowded Market (Reedsy Marketing Guides Book 1)

This book is an incredibly detailed, thoughtful, and relevant look into the online publishing industry in 2021. It reiterates the fundamentals of building an author’s platform and offers advanced ideas for anyone who wants to take the business side of writing seriously. If you’re anything like me, you grew up with a lecture of “Writing isn’t a real career” and “you don’t want to be a starving artist, do you?” While it’s true that an extremely small number of authors become household names, there are countless other authors making a decent living off their craft and even working for themselves full time.

If this is your end goal, and you’re familiar with or at least willing to learn how to be a businessperson, then I highly recommend this book for you. If you’re not sure yet how much time and effort you want to put into your author’s platform, I still recommend this book, but specifically sections 1-3, which explain the fundamentals of how to make it in the publishing world. The language is very easy to understand, and it’s an excellent in-depth primer to get you thinking and planning for the future. Then, when you’re ready to tackle the advanced marketing and advertising sections of the book, you already have the reference material in your back pocket.

Additionally, the e-book is completely free. It’s roughly 60K words, but its an easy read and I got through it in about a week. The author, Ricardo Fayet is an expert in the industry and the co-founder of the company, Reedsy, which is how I found the book. Reedsy has proven to be one of the MOST valuable resources I’ve found in my researching endeavors, and I look forward to taking advantage of their free courses and other resources when I reach those points in my author’s journey.

So, without further ado, let’s get into the big ideas, shall we?

Continue reading

Author Platform Crash Course: Marketing and Publishing Tips

When I started my writeblr during a rotation break at my lifeguard shift, I never expected I’d be writing this post today. What I’m about to share with you is the result of two years learning how to navigate online writing communities, two marketing classes in my business minor, countless influences from successful authors I admire, and 22 pages of notes taken from my marketing and publishing research. I’ve learned so much and I’m honored to have come so far since I first started putting my writing out there on the internet!

Before I get started with the information, I’d like to include a few disclaimers:

  • This information is accurate and up-to-date as of Summer 2021. If you are reading this post at a later date, keep that in mind, and do your own research accordingly.
  • I am a white English speaker based in the US, so this research does not include a nuanced view of other countries’ markets, legal processes, and publishing industries, nor information on publishing in other languages or as part of a minority group. While I tried my best to make it as inclusive as possible within a realistic scope, it is by no means all-encompassing.

If you’re reading this, I’m assuming that you have a story you want to release! The first step to publishing is getting the manuscript into a state where it’s ready to be sent out into the world, which means editing. If you’d like a comprehensive guide on the editing process, check out this post first! That being said, I’ll start by sharing my publishing research!

Traditional vs Self/Indie Publishing:

Continue reading