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Current Reads | December 2017

Hey friends!

This month, I picked up two books from the local bookstore. One was a suggestion from a Booktuber who I love (Mollie Reads) and the other is a continuation of a beloved series.

The first book, Strange the Dreamer, is by Laini Taylor, and this is honestly the first time I’ve heard of her. But honestly, Mollie’s description of her book in a recent video peaked my interest and had me headed to my nearest bookstore as soon as I could.

From what I can gather, Strange the Dreamer is a story about a boy named Lazlo, who joins a band of heroic warriors to cross the world in hope of finding the long lost city, Weep. Lazlo has a host of questions that need to be answered, the most pressing involving the appearance of a blue-skinned goddess in his dreams.

I thought this book sounded so interesting, because the synopsis makes it sound like the main character, Lazlo, is more passive compared to a lot of mainstream protagonists. Not passive in a bad way, but more in that he isn’t the ONLY main character in this novel even though he dominates the POV/narrative. The idea of a blue-skinned goddess and a godslayer sound infinitely entertaining to me and kind of harkens back to books like Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson. All of this sounds super enticing, which is why I had to pick it up.

The second book I grabbed was the first in The Belle Sauvage series, The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman.

Be still my heart.

When I first read the series, I LOVED His Dark Materials more than I loved myself. Seriously. This book meant so much to me when I read it in middle school. It was so ethereal, so otherworldly, and I strived to be as fearless as Lyra when I read those books. And now, she’s back in my world and I am honestly a little nervous to start it. I know Pullman is a bit polarizing in his writing, but if anyone has any non-spoilery words to say on it, please mention it in the comments. I’d love to hear what you have to say ❤

Those are my two current reads for this month, but if I have any new additions (which may happen), I’ll let you know here or on Twitter. Have you guys read these yet? Am I totally wrong in my expectations? I can’t freaking wait to jump into these!

Six of Crows | Book Review

Have you ever been skeptical about a book?
It could have been due to hype and rumors, online discussion, or maybe just the classic “judging a book by its cover.”

I can’t say I’m not guilty of judging books based on hearsay, because I have to admit I was very skeptical about the book Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. Part of the issue is that I read Shadow and Bone, the first book she ever wrote about the Grishaverse. I wasn’t a fan of the plot of that book or the characters, so… in all honesty… I carried that judgement over to her duology Six of Crows and Crowned Kingdom. The other issue is entirely my own: there was so much hype around these two books that I just subconsciously averted myself from them. I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t get past the idea that maybe this book was just as gritty and enticing as it was being advertised.

I mean… a popular YA book can’t possibly be gritty and hard and cold, right? /s

I love YA books and adult fantasy novels that are edgy and dark and yet still take place in some sort of fun, encapsulating universe.

And I am always afraid of trying a book that is marketed that way and the edgiest theme in the book is something commonplace or flat.

Six of Crows is anything but common or flat.

Bardugo’s story is a heist story. It’s told in a Russian-inspired universe called the Grishaverse, and is just as cold, unforgiving, and unbelievably entertaining as Russian folklore. The story follows two main characters, Kaz and Inej, as they manipulate their group of gang members into a heist unlike anything you could imagine. At every turn the plan could go wrong; not only are the gang members unreliable, but so is the intel their heist was built around, and neither Kaz nor Inej know if they can even trust themselves to carry out the plan. They have to go into unfamiliar territory with a host of unknowns in front of them, and all the way to the end the characters keep you riveted and invested with each decision they make.

I honestly loved this story. There’s nothing like a good heist novel to really get your blood pumping, and Bardugo does a great job of blending genres between classic folktale, gritty heist, and emotionally charged fantasy. This may not be a popular opinion, but I honestly disliked EACH of the characters… but in the way where I just could never imagine being friends with someone like them in real life. But I feel like this was part of the charm of the story- these characters grew up in such an awful, unforgiving world, and their personalities were shaped by it. There’s nothing fluffy or compassionate in their lives or their outlooks, which is 100% authentic. By the end of the novel I honestly started to want them to succeed, but I still feel like I’d avoid them if I met them in real life. They’re gang members… they’re pretty ragged characters and I love it.

This does, however, lead into my only criticism- I wish there was a character to root for in this novel. A main character to root for, actually, since, for fear of spoilers, I won’t mention the one character I came to really feel compassion towards. I love the characters’ paths in this and it’s a thoroughly entertaining read, but I’d be much more emotionally invested if there was someone who was… kinder. Not nice, but kind. It just seemed like all of them were very, very selfish and cunning characters and it would have been nice to see a bit of diversity. But that’s a purely personal opinion- the book was still great and entertaining and I highly recommend it! You might be saying, “But Morgan, weren’t you saying you wanted a dark fantasy novel to actually meet your expectations?? Well, expectations are met! The characters are dark and tortured!” All true statements, yet, but it’s more that ALL of the characters were awful, terrible human beings. There’s a difference between gratuitous angst and honest angst and I just felt like there could have been a better balance.

But really, in the grand scheme of things, this book was fantastic.

I feel like you’d like this book if you enjoy mysteries and plot twists. If you liked the movie The Departed, I think you’d like this book because of all the twists and turns as well as the deplorable, hardened characters (seriously, Kaz made me cringe a few times). Bardugo’s writing is similar in style to YA authors like Sarah J. Maas- the structure reminds me a lot of her A Court of Thorns and Roses series.
I hope you liked this review! If you’ve read this book/want to read this book, please comment and let me know your thoughts!

What is a Scene?

This week, let’s chat about scenes. In the last installment, we discussed the over-arching set up of the novel through acts, but this week, we’ll break it down further so that we see the actual usefulness of scenes.

Scenes are different for each medium (TV, movie, book, screenplay, etc.), but they embody this one thing: action.

A scene is a section of writing in which your reader is a part of the story and there is more attention and focus on what’s happening; it is not description, or exposition (for the most part), or conclusion, but it happens around these pieces in chapters.

You know when you’re reading a novel and a chapter typically starts off with a sort of “introduction” and then moves into the meat of the chapter. Chapters are broken into scenes- you can see writers break these up by using little “page break” symbols.

Sometimes, the writer just uses white space to create an illusion of switching attention between scenes. So, don’t get confused by thinking a chapter and a scene are the same thing (chapters are for the most part subjective, which is why I am not including them in this series).

Scenes, however, can be broken up into multiple parts:

  1. Entry
  2. Action
  3. Exit

Entry pertains to the beginning of the scene. This can be written several different ways; abruptly (a ship is sailing along happily and then BAM -the entry- the Kraken attacks), languidly (your character is slowly waking up after being kidnapped), through dialogue (which is my favorite way to break into a scene), etc.

Action doesn’t just mean literal “action.” It means the meat and potatoes of the scene- the substance. It can usually be broken down even further:

  1. Something happens to the character.
  2. The character reacts.
  3. The reaction makes something else happen/ elicits some sort of emotional response.

ALWAYS always always ensure you include the emotion felt in this scene. You aren’t transcribing a movie scene, here, you are getting into your characters head, no matter what genre you’re writing. The characters are going to feel something. Even if you’re writing from a POV that allows for less mind-reading (like third-person), the characters still react and speak. If one of them doesn’t like what happened, show them storming away. If one of them is talking shit about the other characters, do your characters agree? Does someone walk in on them and overhear? Readers like to connect emotionally to stories and scenes are where it happens.

Exit is the end of the scene (not the end of the chapter, remember that) where SOMETHING is resolved. This can be a plot point, a character arc/a part in a character arc, foreshadowing… whatever it is, ensure it’s necessary. It doesn’t even have to be an actual resolution, meaning the world doesn’t have to be conflict-free after this scene. It just has to be a resolution of the action, which means this certain action happened and it affected the characters and you explain/show how it affected the characters.

Now, every scene has something else to it besides purpose, and in one of the resource books I’ve been reading, they call it PULSE. In The Scene Book by Sandra Scofield, she calls it pulse. There’s conflict and tension in your scene, yes, but there’s something else driving it. A scene is propelled forward by your characters main desires, and sometimes that can actually cause the conflicts within your scene. This background desire or need is what pulse is.

For example: In The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman, there’s a scene right at the beginning of the story where a new character is introduced and is narrating the novel. He comes upon Lyra in a new world, and the scene serves mostly as an introduction between the two characters and make them companions, but there is this subtle beat beneath the scene that stems from Wills desires to help his mother. He initially goes on this adventure because he doesn’t want to see her die, so he needs to find a way to help her. So he goes adventuring. Does that make sense?

I hope this helped! If you guys would like more examples in these posts I’d be happy to do so, I’m just afraid of writing too much on the subject 🙂 I tend to get rambly when I talk about something that interests me lol

If you are interested in one of the books that helped me format this post, look up The Scene Book by Sandra Scofield. It’s a nice little book that I used in a class in my Master’s program and it is a great reference.

Should Novelists Also Write Short Stories?

There is this age-old idea that in order to be better at writing novels, a writer should either begin with or practice writing short stories.

It’s fallen out of fashion because there are even less markets now-a-days that publish short stories, and even fewer that actually pay the writer for them. It used to be true that authors could find a good way into the industry through being published by short stories, but it is way less likely now.

So, is this actually worth doing? I say YES, but of course there are caveats.

In my experience, writing short stories are perfect as practice. They’re “short,” to-the-point, and you can usually get an idea out onto paper within a day. It won’t be polished, but it helps you develop your voice and style and also flexes your vocabulary muscle.

It’s also less emotionally devastating to write a short story using a new technique and do poorly at it, than it is to write a full-length novel and find out you need more practice.

Plus, short stories are the NUMBER ONE way to discover worthwhile novel ideas. If you write a bad short story, you’ll live- you have some practice hours under your belt. But if you write one and think, “Hm, I could build on this,” then do it!

I don't think that writers need to start with short stories, though, in order to get into writing novels. Short stories are not the same as novels structurally or even in terms of substance. You leave a lot of things out in short stories that would otherwise by crucial to novels. I know a few writers that dabble in both short stories and novels, and the whole outlining AND writing process is different for both. It’s a different writing strength you’re developing when you write short stories, so if you want to be a novelist, take the time to get better at writing actual novels. You can’t just transfer your approach to short stories to novels.

For example, when I write a short story, I start with a single idea. I just grow off of that and stop when I think I’ve told a story.

But for novels, I have to have that idea AND the ending AND the character(s) fleshed out. Otherwise, the growth of the story is stale and ruminating.

Short stories are like ponds. They are little examples of a bigger world, a tiny version of what a body of water could be, and you can just write circles around this pond.

But novels are like rivers. They flow on and on and erode the things around it and change with the weather and the season. They’re forever shifting, and so should you be as a novelist. You can get better at moving with these shifts when you practice writing novels, but you can better identify each stretch, each little part of the river, at a much more personal level because of your experience writing short stories.

Does that make sense?

I’d love to hear about your experience in writing. Do you stick to just novels? Do you prefer to write graphics novels instead? Or maybe screenwriting? What other mediums have you dabbled in and which do you find strengthen your ability to write?

WIP and Muses: Darlings Come-to-Life, Dragons, and Aliens

Right now, I can hear the rain falling. The only light on in our little apartment is the Lavender & Sage candle on my desk, and, despite the darkness outside, I can still hear birds singing.

It’s been an interesting week. I took almost an entire week off from writing because lo and behold, I completed my third novel. And you know, I really think this is it.

I learned so much from my first two stories that I think I finally, finally, got something worth reading into a story format. It’s still rough, it’s not great, but it’s got that certain something that’s been missing from my last few stories. Sentinel Crooke is a fully formed human (at least, in my mind), and I want to share him and his universe with the world.

My goal was to write it in two months. Everyday, 1,500 words, and I damn near came close. I wrote for 62 days, from June 12th to August 14th, and finished the last Monday by churning out almost 8,000 words in one sitting. I skipped a few days in those two months because I learned a few things about myself- for one, without getting too into too many details, I have a few days during my week with Aunt Flow that I’m completely out of commission. I should have anticipated that. I mean… it actually gets in the way of my day job, too. And my social life. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I couldn’t write and was just laying on the floor in pain for a day or two. Also, I didn’t plan around the few weekends I had actual social plans that had me away from the apartment for a few days at a time. But, when I hit those days that screamed at me, “don’t write! you should play video games! or go shopping!” I just shoved that voice to the side and got into the thick of it.

I have some editing to do, but nothing insurmountable like my last story. As soon as I finished the first draft, I laid on the floor and stared at the ceiling and then treated myself to a glass of rose. It was a good end to a heartfelt story that I just love to bits and pieces.

Since I haven’t been writing this week, I’ve been doing a lot of blog planning and future story planning (and some other fun plans that I can’t wait to share with you 🙂 ). I’ve also, finally, finished reading a book, and be still my heart… it was hands-down my favorite book this year.

The Summer Dragon by Todd Lockwood is OUT OF THIS WORLD oh my god please read it. I’m thinking of doing a book review for it… maybe a YouTube video? What are your thoughts? Do you like to watch reviews or read reviews?

Also, I watched Alien: Covenant last night and want to write a story JUST for Michael Fassbender. I’m in love with him and his impeccable acting… please tell me I’m not the only one. The first time I watched a movie with him in it was the movie Frank and I just fell for him SO hard. He’s so weird and unconventional but so gooood at acting.

Anyway, those have inspired me to want to write 1) a dragon story, and 2) an unconventional story… kind of, Mister Magorium’s Magic Emporium but with an even more twisted main character as the lead. I’m currently brainstorming those (and outlining the 2nd Sentinel Crooke novel), with the little furballs finally sleeping in the other room. It’s quiet, it’s rainy, it’s the perfect day for some reading and camping out on the couch.

Let me know what you’re doing today! I’d love to hear how you’re winding down your work week. And also, let me know if you also like to watch authors/writers on YouTube… because I’d love to hear your opinions.

What is an Act?

You may think Acts are only used for Screenplays, but I’d like to tell you: we’re writers! We break all the rules!

Actually, that’s not the only reason why writers use Acts. The three-Act plot structure is one of the oldest writing techniques to date. It’s famous for being used by playwrights like Shakespeare. But, as novelists, we can use it to structure our story into the most cohesive story we can.

Acts revolve around the biggest turning points in your story. This means Acts drive the plot.

For the sake of ease, we’ll use the three-act structure as an example (even though you can do two-acts, 9-acts, and even 12-acts).

Your first Act is the set up. It tells the reader who they’re reading about, why they should care, and what’s the “problem.”

The second Act is what Writer’s Write like to call “The Complication.” It sets up the “problem” in a way to make it more important and more of a hurdle. Typically, the protagonist is faced with more difficulty in addressing the “problem.” At the end of the second Act, they should have faced this extra-strong “problem” and failed, or something should have failed so that all feels lost. This can be in the form of the character being faced with their biggest fear, losing what they loved the most, or just generally not succeeding in what they had set out to do at the beginning of the second Act.

The third Act is the conclusion. Either the character bounces back and manages to solve the problem that had reared it’s head in Act one, or, sometimes, the character still fails, but that’s up to the writer. Either way, the Acts revolve around the plot and the conflicts within.

As an example, let's dissect The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. This story was first published as a single story made up of three volumes- three acts.

 

The Fellowship of the Ring
For the sake of keeping things succinct, the "problem" faced in the first Act is that the One Ring has to leave the Shire. Frodo does take it upon himself to do this, creating many subplots that involve his friends, potential enemies, and actual enemies, but the main issue that the whole story deals with is getting the Ring away. It is at the end of this Act when Frodo decides to actually destroy it, which leads us into the "complication."

 

The Two Towers
The "complication" is many-fold in this Act. Again, I don't mean to leave out all the subplots because Frodo's story is not the MOST important part of the story, but it is the core. The "complication" is actually getting the Ring to Mordor while fighting the side-effects of the Ring and also seeing, in every moment, what the Ring does to you physically and mentally. Gollum is a constant reminder of what is happening to Frodo, and Sam has to shoulder a lot of the burden- despite Frodo not wanting to get his friends hurt in his quest. Frodo has to deal with the fact that maybe, maybe, he can't fulfill his quest it is slowly killing him. He has to rely on Sam to continue their pilgrimage. And, if things couldn't get worse, they get split up at the end of this Act as well.

 

Return of the King
Now, as the concluding Act, this is more of a tragedy than a success story. Frodo does manage to reunite with Sam, they manage to take the ring to Mordor, but at the end of it all, Frodo fails. The Ring consumes him. But, the Ring's very essence is what causes it's undoing, because if it weren't for Gollum's obsession with the Ring, it would have lived on. Gollum bites off Frodo's finger, they go tumbling into Mount Doom, and "Frodo" saves them all.

 

This is a simple explanation (it leaves out a lot of juicy bits about the subplots, but that's a post for another day), but it definitely shows the setup of a three-act story.  If you guys have another example or if this helped you out in any way, let me know!

 

This post contains affiliate links, which means I may receive a commission if you choose to click the link and make a purchase. Any purchase helps support Morgan Billings Writes and my work in bringing you helpful tips, inspiration, and information about the writing industry.

Traditional Novel Structure: 3 Parts

The fun of reading is getting lost in a novel, isn’t it? You forget about character arcs, sentence structure, and subplots. Instead, you’re invested in the characters and you root for a satisfying resolution, whatever that may be.

A well-structured novel allows readers to get lost in the story, because it has a strong foundation upon which the story was built. Sometimes authors tackle the structure during the outline and some tackle it during their editing. Either way, there are specific parts of structure that are usually included that can help a writer make the best of their story.

We can break down structure into three main parts:

Acts

Scenes

Beats

I will go into these in detail in posts to come over the next couple weeks, but now I really want to break down the importance of structure.

Novel structure can change from genre to genre, but for the most part it begins as a whole with Acts. Acts are the largest parts of your novel and revolve around the major turning points. This means, the huge conflict that you are writing about is built within these acts to form intelligently paced scenes. There are outlines that use two Acts, three Acts (the most traditional form), and even more:

Blake Snyder Beat Sheet

12 Act Outline

Some of the most popular 3-act novels would include Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien (it was original published as a three-volume, three-act book, not a trilogy) and even Haruki Murakami's most notable novel, 1Q84.

Either way, Acts are defined by the major turning points that revolve around conflict and plot.

You may be wondering why I skipped chapters and went straight into scenes. Well, chapters vary from author to author and aren’t a hard and fast structural rule. They contribute to the strength and pacing of your story, but they do not hold up the foundation of the story- they’re like the walls of the house, you know?

Scenes are the in-between parts of structure that can revolve both around conflict and character arcs. They show the reader an active piece of a characters life, but their importance lies in what is happening under the surface. A scene usually depicts a change in a character’s attitude, builds a part of the plot, or influences the reader to feel a certain way. The scene ends when the change is complete.

Beats make up scenes. It’s the constant shift and switch of a character through dialogue or action. Beats could be: a girl wakes up in bed, she thinks about her strange dream (was she fighting in a war?), she picks up her phone and realizes it’s dead, she forces herself out of bed, she goes to the window and sees that there is a wasteland outside her apartment. Beats are the action and reaction of the character.

I’ll be posting more about these in the weeks to come. Please let me know if you have any questions you want answered or if you want me to write out some examples by commenting below!