Five Fun Ways To Use Plants in Your Fiction

Five Fun Ways to use in your fiction

Maybe it’s all the green from St. Patrick’s Day yesterday, or maybe I’m just tired of being in the frozen North where green things don’t really show up until mid-April, but today, plants are taking over the blog. Consider this one of those world-building/plotting mash-ups to give you a fresh perspective as you take on your weekend!

Note: this is slightly ironic because, despite two years of teaching basic botany, my personal plant-caring skills are less than awesome. However, I love finding ways to use plants in stories. At least they’ll thrive somewhere!

Environments
One of the most obvious ways to use plants is in setting. Whether you’re creating entirely new flora and fauna for a fantasy world or inviting your readers into a new locale on this planet, using details about plants can help set the stage and make your story stand out. Plants can trigger all of the senses, which makes them a great thing for adding sensory detail–even the sound of leaves rustling in the trees or brush crunching underfoot is a great way to anchor your reader into the story. Using a city environment? Unless you’re in a post-apocalyptic, no-green world, plants are sturdy and adaptable enough to grow anywhere.

Food
From special herbs to succulent salads to delicious fruit desserts, there are plenty of ways to use plants in your food descriptions. While it’s easy to dismiss food as an unnecessary part of world-building and plotting, food has actually been used in pivotal ways throughout history. Sea travelers ate oranges to stave off scurvy. The colonists of America would have starved without a friendly Native American teaching them how to grow corn. And then consider the Irish potato famine and the origins of the Dust Bowl–both instances where poor plant farming drastically changed millions of lives.

Love/Romance
From love potions to pheromones, plants are a primary culprit in love and romance for many stories. A Midsummer Night’s Dream did this to great effect and humor (and yes, magic was involved as well), and a common trope in science fiction television is for the cast to find themselves on a planet with plants that send out frisky vibes. Supervillain Poison Ivy takes this to another level with her poisonous kisses. Even just using a lush garden as a surrounding or a bouquet of fragrant flowers as a gift can be a great way to add romance. And if that bouquet of roses is dipped in blood, suddenly you’ve gone from romance to horror, which can be a fun twist!

The Villain
From poisonous to people eating, plants can make the best baddies. Of course, someone using a plant-based poison to kill someone else else is a time-honored plot twist–and it helps that so many plants are both healing and poisonous. Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors has a taste for human flesh that makes for great tension. M. Night Shymalan’s The Happening has plants releasing spores to take out humans. In fact, plants run amok is a common theme in horror and is an aspect of the natural horror subgenre.

Medicine
From athelas in The Lord of the Rings to herbology classes in the Harry Potter books, the plants that can kill you can also make you stronger. Plants are used so much for medicinal purposes, especially in mythological and medieval story worlds, that it would almost be a cliche if it weren’t so accurate. However, the degree to which plants are used as medicine is also an easy indicator for the general anthropological period of your story, as in modern days over-the-counter medicines and chemical remedies are more common, and in science fiction stories the usage of actual leaves and roots in home-grown remedies can be viewed as suspicious. In addition, the way characters respond to the usage of plants in medicine can be a way to reveal aspects of their personality.

Edgar the Plotbunny is a fan of plants!

 What about you, readers and #plothoppers? How do you use plants in your stories? What other ways have you seen plants used?

 

Why Self-Editing Helps You Market Your Book

Why Self-Editing Helps You Market Your Book (1)

Writing is a delicate balance of writing your unique vision and communicating that vision to your desired audience (and hopefully to individuals who realize they’re in your audience). After the trials and joys of drafting comes revising and editing, when you have to look at every aspect of your story and rip it to shreds in order to make it better.

Or so every quote would have you believe.

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While it’s true that editing is a matter of making your message clear for others, sometimes the whole prospect can be intimidating. I know it is for me! As much as I crave improving and fixing things, I feel dread whenever I turn a work over to an editor (yes, I’m aware of the irony considering I am one).

The reason is simple: yes, my work is a product to sell, and my left-brained marketing side is eager to get it ship-shape and off to see how it sails.

But my work is also a part of me and always will be. So is yours.

And that isn’t a bad thing. In fact, that’s something that you, as a writer, need to own with everything you have. Because no matter if you sign with an agent, contract with a publishing house, or indie publish, in today’s market it falls on the author to sell their books. There have been debates about the fairness of this, but arguing theoretical fairness doesn’t change the facts.

One fact: this market that demands author involvement and promotion is a great opportunity for you to discover and hold onto the passion that makes you write your stories. Hold onto that passion with everything you have. Remember it when you have to face selling your story. Learn how to hone and shape it and use it in marketing schemes.

This is your Push: the reason that you keep putting blood, sweat, tears, and sleepless nights into a field that really doesn’t offer any guarantees of monetary success or lasting fame.

Self-edits are the first step of this journey of ownership, because in analyzing your story after a period of time (a day, a week, a month, whatever you need), you have the opportunity to truly see what parts of you are within each page of your work. Use the self-editing time not only to reflect on what needs to change about the story, but also on what needs to stay the same. Know what elements are part of your essential branding and theme. What common threads weave through your stories? There are always common threads. What are the aspects of your worldview, your life experiences, your personality, your dreams that shine through?

Yes, you need to write in a way that reaches the market. Yes, you should absolutely clean up that manuscript with at least three editing passes (bare minimum). Yes, you need to make your vision accessible.

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But there are a lot of books getting published every single day. Not even being part of a major traditional house will do anything to ensure your success. Solid cover art, good formatting, top-notch editing, and money thrown at the right marketing ventures can all play a part.

There is one selling point of your story that no one else can duplicate.

You. The deepest inside part of you that seeps into everything you write whether you want it to or not. Your themes.

Your Push.

Know it.
-When self-editing and working with beta-readers, don’t just note what you need to fix. Make a list of things that you really want to/have to keep and why. You may have to negotiate on how you show those aspects, but it gives you a solid footing with an editor (and they’ll appreciate your self-awareness and foresight, as long as it comes with humility).

Own it.
-Understand these key aspects of yourself. One reason you might get stuck or having writers block is that something you’ve written or a plot line you’re using is in violation of an aspect of your Push. Knowing what are your deal-breakers goes a long way to solving your writing issues!

Use it.
-When you know your Push, it is a powerful way of marketing because you can authentically connect with others who have the same values, passions, experiences, and/or favorite things that you do! Plus, it helps build authenticity in your brand, and that is a potent, natural way of selling. Relationships are the way to build trust, and it is a lot easier to form natural, unselfish relationships with others as your genuine yourself.

What’s your push, #plothoppers? What makes you get out of bed in the morning and write? Feel free to share in the comments! And if you’re unsure about what any of that is and/or you want to know more, sign up for a free thirty-minute coaching session with me. Getting awesome books on their way to publication is one of my main missions (besides eating a fried tarantula), and I’d love to help!

How to Increase Tension in Stories Using Character Contrast

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Contrast is one of my favorite buzzwords when it comes to character creation. Using opposites to force character growth and make characters stand out is one of the easiest and most effective ways of getting reader attention and making sure your story keeps moving.

Today I’ll give you an easy way to implement that in your own stories. It involves using what you already know about your characters and turning the tables to make those qualities pop.

Here’s how I often organize characterization:

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The fun thing about characters is that, like people, they have layers, and a great way to create a layer is to create a clash or conflict between at least two elements of characterization.

Superheroes do this all the time. Take Superman/Clark Kent, for example:

1.) Appearance – Handsome
2.) Career/Job/What They Do – Saves the world (a lot)
3.) Personality – Strong and determined, generally introverted in most incarnations
4.) Motivation – classic Hero Archetype – because someone has to + because he can + to prove his worth
5.) Worldview/Beliefs – classic down-home American values combined with whatever he got from Krypton

In order to do achieve his goal and try to live a normal introverted life (which his personality demands) and to show humility/protect loved ones (which those down-home American values dictate), Superman has to lie about his alien identity and live as Clark Kent. This deception is totally at odds with the rest of his all-too-heroic demeanor and is often something played for humor and conflict as he sneaks around to save the world (and different versions of Superman emphasize the Clark Kent side vs. Kal-El side to a greater or lesser degree).

Superheroes often use dual-identity to create conflicts and layers within character, but this concept can work in any situation. All you need is to tweak one aspect of the environment or one essential layer.

Tweaking your characters’ core layers to oppose each other is a great way to create internal and external conflict (Click to Tweet).

Another example is Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games:

1.) Appearance – Ordinary
2.) Career/Job/What They Do – Takes care of family, hunts, spends time with Gale
3.) Personality – Strong and determined, generally introverted in most incarnations, not interested in being heroic
4.) Motivation – The Explorer – individualist + wanderer + freedom to do what is necessary to get things done and operate their own destiny
5.) Worldview/Beliefs – rugged American individualism, plus independence, personal freedom, and devotion to family

So of course, author Suzanne Collins plunks Katniss in the middle of a dangerous political/literal game that requires playing within the rules of a flashy world comprised of the socially-adept. Of course Katniss’s entire being opposes this, but her core worldview means that her family must be kept safe. Threaten Primrose Everdeen, and suddenly Katniss has to bite the bullet and endure a host of trials and difficulties. To make it worse, she manages to gain a following based on public perception of her personality. For this reason, I’ve always found book two of trilogy, Catching Fire, to be the most compelling, because it features the strongest conflicts for Katniss in terms of characterization.

The more you tweak a character to be out of odds with a fundamental part of their own personality, their required role, or their environment, the more tension you build into the plot, and the more you provide opportunities for growth and change.

What about you, #plothoppers?  Anything to add on characterization? Who’s your favorite character with strong contrasts?

Drafting 101 – There’s No One Right Way to Write

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As I considered the next stage in the Fundamentals of Writing: Inside Out series, I got a little hung up on drafting, because drafting ultimately is up to you. The writer.

You can read all the writing craft books you want, but ultimately, your writing process is unique to you. And that is 100% okay (Tweet This).

There are plenty of books to teach you the “winning way.” Trust me, I’ve read through a ton of them. I’m a massive improvement junkie who is always eager to learn new ways of doing things.

Crank out 5,000 words an hour! No, wait! Five pages a day. How about the “write something every day” method? Surely that works? But what about on days when there’s a death in the family, or you’re revisiting your lunch in the bathroom, or you just can’t find the words? Do you just force it? Maybe not. Maybe you should just slow down. Maybe you should outline more. Maybe you should–

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This is where I ended up going to Twitter or Facebook or getting chocolate or potato chips. Or exercising (irony there, I know). Or doing anything other than facing that blank screen with all those well-meaning voices in my head, trying to sincerely to help me, the same way I try to help you.

Here’s the best piece of drafting advice I can give you: have fun. Life’s too short for anything else (Tweet This).

Center yourself. Do whatever you need to do. Pray.  Write and try and fail and make mistakes and start all over again. Throw things if you need to. Eat chocolate. Give someone a hug. Watch TV. Be alone. Be around people. Mix things up. Try again.

Never forget to enjoy your writing, your research, your art. Whatever you want to call it. Find reasons to fall in love with your worlds all over again (Tweet This).

And never give up.

3 Reasons to Add A Little Love to Your Story (and World-Building)

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All right, I’m still going forward with the Fundamentals of Fiction: Inside Out, but my world-building side has been itching to make a comeback, so why not do both?

I gotta admit, in my other life as a fiction writer, love is a must in my stories. Even if it’s not the focal point, romantic entanglements offer ways to mess with character motivations and complicate plot points like nothing else. Now, in the speculative fiction world, romance can be viewed with suspicion–I was right there griping when paranormal romance starting ‘invading’ the urban fantasy section of the bookshelves. How dare it disturb the purity of science fiction and fantasy?

Then, I got over myself and realized that using romantic complications can be a great tool in all fiction writers’ tool boxes, including speculative fiction writers. I’m not saying it has to work out, and I’m not saying that it has to be more than a few hints here and there, but using romantic elements really can fit into any story.

Note: when I use the word “love” here I’m referring to desire, attraction, and romantic feelings. I’m aware of the other types of love and the nuances therein, but I’m keeping this to one manageable blog post. 😉

1.) Character Growth

Love makes people do dumb things in ways that the audience can believe. This is fantastic if you need an otherwise intelligent character to go off-kilter. It doesn’t mean they have to give in to the feelings or that those feelings have to take over the plot, but the existence of those feelings makes them more relatable and adds another layer to the character. In Blood Mercy:Thicker Than Water, protagonist Melrose Durante has to unlock the mind of an insane vampire to save a city; the fact that she’s his wife and he still loves her adds tension and stress to the workings of his otherwise rational thought processes.

2.) Major Conflicts

Love/lust makes things messy. Helen of Troy’s swoon-worthy beauty caused more than a few issues in Ancient Greece. Henry VIII partly broke off from the Catholic church because he wanted a second wife. Cleopatra’s political machinations and messy affairs with Marc Antony and Julius Caesar made all sorts of fun things happen between Egypt and Rome. And in The Three Musketeers, D’Artagnan’s poor choices with Milady de Winter (as well as her past with Athos), makes her a great foil and troublemaker in the story.

3.) Cultural Issues

Introducing romantic affection can add really fun complications if the connection is cross-cultural. Love and affection can mess with divides of race, ethnicity, societal boundaries, religion, or whatever else. Or it can be something that goes against the dictates of society itself! In Voiceless, my steampunk fantasy, two main characters are deeply in love, committed, and destined to be together, but they have no idea, because their militant society has eliminated the concept of romantic love and devotion from the culture. It takes going to another culture (and having another man show up) to push this couple to see the truth.

 

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Edgar the Plot Bunny is feeling the love!

 

What about you #plothoppers? Agree? Disagree? How do you use love in your story?

A Quick-Start Guide to Story Structure Methods

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I have a confession: I used to write stories without any structure. At all. Granted, I was a teenager writing for play-by-post RPGs, so the structure was mostly a free-form (and sometimes free-for-all) game of “what crazy thing can happen next?” This made for fun times and fantastic characters, but not for lasting stories. Since that time over a decade ago, I’ve sought to rectify this shortage of plotting knowledge, and in doing so, the student has become a wiser master-student who wants to pass along all of the information she’s learned!

Problem & Solution

This is the absolute basic minimum you need to craft a story or any kind of narrative thread for stage or screen. When I’m just looking to “pants” a new idea, I frame out the problem and solution so I have something to shoot for. The problem and solution may shift or change, but they still work.

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Freytag’s Pyramid

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Remember this charmer? You might have learned it in grade school–I know I teach it every year! It’s a great little method for analyzing stories at their most basic level, although it lacks the nuances of the midpoint and other things that many other structure methods employ. Still, you can’t beat Freytag’s pyramid to confirm you at least have the basics of a plot going on. I find it especially helpful for nailing down short pieces, like short stories and flash fiction, just to make sure I’m not missing any essentials. It’s also one of the first things I’ll send over to clients to have them fill out. If you can’t pass the basics of the Freytag, then you need to go back to square one.

Three Act Structure

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Welcome to Freytag’s complicated big sister. Actually, the Three-Act Structure is considered a standard for screenwriting that has hopped over into fiction writing and become quite popular. It’s very helpful for making sure your plot moves along briskly, and it is great for avoiding a sagging middle. How could your middle sag with all those disasters and obstacles? The big trick is to make sure to weave solid character arcs into all of that plotting. K. M. Weiland’s and James Scott Bell’s books below both make use of the Three Act Structure.

Bullet Point Method

This isn’t anything fancy. You just sit down and figure out your own plot in quick bullet points that go scene by scene, chapter by chapter, or plot point by plot point. While I’ll structure whole stories using a combination of the Three Act Structure and some of the methods below, when it comes down to actually writing I make a checklist of chapters or scenes to hit and go through them methodically, tweaking as necessary. When it comes to novellas and short stories, I sometimes even bypass writing out the structure in favor of a basic summary paragraph. I wouldn’t recommend this method if you’re just starting out and new to structure, but once you have a few drafts under your belt, it can be a nice way to switch up the routine.

Character Arc Method

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This method charts an entire story around the protagonist’s character arc. For some writers, this is the way to go. Allowing the growth of the main character, and perhaps a supporting character or two, is certainly a way to make sure your story has emotional resonance and potency. That being said, it is always important to make the growth external through the plot. The best way to make this method win is to combine it with some kind of plot structure, just to make sure your action/events and character growth tightly intertwine.

K.M. Weiland’s Methods

These two books come highly acclaimed and promoted. While I haven’t read either of them, I have read through her free eBook 5 Secrets of Story Structure and found it very helpful. She also has a great series on her blog Helping Writers Become Authors, that offers a streamlined process of How to Outline Your Novel for NaNoWriMo. Basically, she’s got great stuff, so check it out!

Write Your Novel From the Middle

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This was one of my newest writing craft reads, and it was well worth it for the golden chapters in the middle on writing towards the midpoint of your novel. I already found myself doing this after a few drafts taught me I needed to put SOMETHING awesome in the middle to keep myself interested, but James Scott Bell’s book turned my rough muddling into a refined technique. Also has some useful tips at the end for beginning writers.

Snowflake Method

Randy Ingermanson’s methodical, step-by-step method really strips the mystique of novel writing down to a defined process. While it has a few too many steps for my easily-distracted brain, it’s great for pushing yourself to get moving on any story. Plus, he also sells software!

Take Off Your Pants

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I haven’t tried this outlining book personally, but I know of other authors who swear in changed their lives–so maybe it could change yours! It’s on my To Be Read pile of craft books, since I’m always up for new ideas!

In this instructional ebook, author Libbie Hawker explains the benefits and technique of planning a story before you begin to write. She’ll show you how to develop a foolproof character arc and plot, how to pace any book for a can’t-put-down reading experience, and how to ensure that your stories are complete and satisfying without wasting time or words.

Hawker’s outlining technique works no matter what genre you write, and no matter the age of your audience. If you want to improve your writing speed, increase your backlist, and ensure a quality book before you even write the first word, this is the how-to book for you.

Take off your pants! It’s time to start outlining.

The Story Template

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I had the pleasure of attending one of Amy Deardon’s sessions at my very first writer’s conference, and I have to say, this book did a great job of introducing me to plot break-downs and story structure. Definitely a solid addition to your writing repertoire.

World-Building Method

A method I’m developing specifically for speculative fiction that capitalizes on the story’s world-building to create irresistible, fantastical treats. Every aspect of world-building is woven into the plot so that your story becomes something more than just another piece of escapism. It becomes a compelling voyage into another realm that your readers can’t wait to dive into! Also useful for authors writing stories that strongly rely on setting, such as historical/period books. This is a work-in-progress, but if you hang around Write Inside Out and sign up for my newsletter, you’ll get exclusives!

What you, plothoppers? What’s your favorite story structure method? Please share in the comments!

Why Obsessing About the Opening Can Kill Your Story

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I have the attention span of a small, sugar-crazed squirrel–at least when it comes to books. While I’ll try anything, my TBR pile is huge and my time is small.

When I worked at a bookstore and business was slow, I’d pause in organizing the shelves and pull random books out to flip open to their first pages. My only test was to see if it would keep my attention enough to get past page one.

Of course, if I got to page five or ten, then I’d have two other problems: a need to buy the book and a scolding from my boss. Then it was back to dusting!

This taught me one important thing: the opening pages are vital to catching audience attention. After all, that first scene, those first few paragraphs, are what agents, editors, and publishers ask for queries. They’re what potential customers seen when they open your book for the sneak peek on Kindle. It would stand to reason that, above all, those opening scenes are critical.

Then, I ran into a problem, one that got me kicked out of consideration at appointments, and made me throw out draft after draft. And it’s a problem I’ve seen since seen in the work of clients.

Tweet: Beware of crafting a great opening scene for a story that fundamentally doesn’t work. – Janeen Ippolito

Last week’s blog post mentioned the framing block for all stories:

Problem & Solution

One reason I came up with this formula was due to drafting out story after story with all kinds of shiny world-building, unique characters, and clever dialogue, with scenes that worked–and with a plot that was fundamentally flawed because it had no focus and no meaningful purpose for existence.

I didn’t realize this was my issue until about 3-4 years ago, when a writing colleague whom I hadn’t spoken with a while read pages of my latest baby/short story and gave me a mercifully cutting comment – “what’s the point of this? Where is it going?”

Tweet: Never let good writing craft and fancy tricks distract you from the fundamentals of story. – Janeen Ippolito

Now, when I look at the work of potential submissions or of clients, I’m duly impressed by a shiny opening scene with all the bells and whistles and hooks. But the first question I ask them for is spoilers about the ending to make sure it lines up.

Don’t worry about your opening scene at first. Get your story in line, and then edit your opening scene to invite readers into that story world.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when organizing your story and opening scene: 

  • What’s the story problem? Do you meaningfully hint at the story problem in the opening scene/chapter, or does your story problem inexplicably change later on? (Thanks to plot bunnies!)
  • How is your problem solved? Is the solution to your story’s problem at all hinted at in the opening scene/chapter? If not, try to do that. It can be really satisfying for readers.
  • Is the protagonist you’re introducing in that opening scene the person who solves the problem? If not, they aren’t your protagonist. They’re just a fill-in who is getting a lot of page time.

It is important to make those opening pages shine. But it’s equally important to make sure you have a solid story so that when you get a request for the full manuscript (or a customer clicks to buy your whole book), they realize that those pages were only a taste of the true awesome your work has to offer.

Edgar the Plot Bunny searching for awesome plots!

 

What about you, Plothoppers? Any further advice for opening scenes? Any opening scene snippets from WIPs that you want to share? Feel free to comment! 🙂 OR tweet online at #plothop or #edgartheplotbunny!