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In case you missed it, we published a new episode of our weekly podcast, Firsts in Fiction. It goes up every Monday.  This week, Aaron and I discuss our favorite writing tools for getting the job done.  We highlight the top 5, and then spend some time on the other great tools out there.  Give us a listen and let us know what you think!

Listen on Stitcher (Be sure to give us a thumb’s up)

Listen on iTunes (Be sure to give us a good review)

Listen and See Show Notes on Aaron’s site

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heroesHey everybody! We’ve just put up a special, bonus cast on Firsts in Fiction.  Aaron and Nathan discuss writing heroes and story centering around the comic book greats.  How to create a really compelling story, bringing in the human element in a metahuman world. This cast is coming to you in addition to our normal weekly release–it’s just an extra for your enjoyment.

Listen on Stitcher

Listen on iTunes

Listen and See Show Notes on Aaron’s site

 

What makes our stories pull on the reader’s mind and heart?

“Which do you mean?” and turning round, he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said, “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me.”

In Pride and Prejudice, this is our first  introduction to Mr. Darcy as the prideful man of higher social class.  His words sear a lasting impression into the mind of the reader, and Elizabeth, our protagonist.  These words plant a seed of contention between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth.  It is such a surprise to a new reader, then, when it is learned that the two are destined to love each other.

The story excels because it creates the ground for an arc from bad, that goes to worse, and then finally, when tension is at its highest, it goes to wonderful.  The reader realizes that this man is actually perfectly suited to Elizabeth and the two are meant for each other. What was once loathing for a character has transitioned into love. Jane Austen takes you from one end of the spectrum to the other.  Lesson: the further the contrast, the better the payoff.

villains

New Halloween Special Episode of Firsts in Fiction.  Hear about Villains: how to create awesome, evil, complex, and engaging villains.

Listen on Stitcher

Happy Halloween!

Starting a Podcast

Posted: October 16, 2013 in Writing
Tags: , ,

ImagePodcasting is a new and exciting creative exercise for me.  I’m now doing a podcast called Firsts in Fiction with Aaron Gansky, a long-time friend and fellow writer.  In the podcast, I’m the “aspiring” writer, and he’s a published author.  We discuss topics that include character development, starting your book, and rules for writing good fiction.

After ten episodes we’re just now starting to hit our stride and feeling more comfortable with the content we’re producing.  Sitting down and talking to listeners unseen is a challenge.  You need to orient yourself to be comfortable speaking to somebody that isn’t there.  Having a co-host helps that awkward feel, but it still took some getting used to.

We record our episodes in batch, because we’re both busy guys and don’t have the time to meet once a week and record.  With kids, full time jobs, and a long list of standard commitments, we found that batching was a really effective way to do this.

Episode 10 just aired on Monday, which brings to a close the poor quality audio recordings we did a few weeks ago.  We just got together again, this last weekend, and recorded episodes 11 through 14 with new microphones and sat in my car to get superior sound dampening (pro-tip).

We had a guest, Nathan Bodell of Wednesday Comics, sit in with us to learn the ropes of podcasting.  I was glad to have him along for this latest batch because I’d say it was a good representation of how to do a good podcast.  Our old methods wouldn’t have taught good habits.  It was a lot of fun.

However, late in Episode 11, while we were busily discussing how to understand editors, an echo developed and proceeded to get progressively worse until the end.  Our microphones were picking up all our voices and creating the echo.  To make matters even worse, I didn’t catch the problem until we finished recording all four episodes.  (We were in a hurry to get through recording each episode because an hour was wasted at the beginning resolving technical difficulties.) This was because of our close proximity, and without any barriers between us to block out the additional sounds from each other’s voices, all the mics were picking up all our voices at the same time.

Episode 11 is passable and will air, but the rest are not.  We’re going to try to get the additional recording done during an already busy coming weekend.  These kinds of issues can be very discouraging, but we all maintained a positive attitude–I think we were able to stay upbeat because we have such a passion for it.

On the bright side, I feel like a real podcaster now, having encountered the dreaded lost episode problem.  Losing three out of four episodes is a pretty big blow, but having had so much fun doing them in the first place, we’re happy to revisit the same content and do it again.  I’d wager it’ll even be better content now that we’ve fleshed out some of our thoughts once already.

If you’re thinking of starting your own podcast, I have a few pointers:

If you’re on a budget, buy Audio Technica ATR2100s and your audio will sound fantastic.

Want incredible, vocal-booth quality audio? Record in your car.  Your car is built to dampen sound.  I like to say that I have a $17,000 vocal booth. Be careful with multiple people though, as we learned.

We use Audacity to record and edit our audio.  It’s free, open source, multi-platform, and works well.

If you need to record more than one person in a room and don’t have the money to buy a mixer (which we didn’t), invest a more reasonable $35 and buy VAC (Virtual Audio Cable). The program is not well-known, because it’s not well publicized, but it does the trick.  You can download the trial to see if it works for you, but you’ll quickly want to upgrade because it announces that it’s a trial into your audio stream every ten seconds.  YouTube will guide you through setup and use. We used it and it worked great.

I can’t recommend Dave Jackson’s show School of Podcasting enough.  He’s provided a ton of great insights into how to do a good podcast. There are plenty of other great shows out there too, and to find them, I recommend checking out Podcaster’s Roundtable.  All the greats are on this show and you can go listen to all their individual shows.

If you’re a fiction writer and would like to learn more about writing great fiction, I recommend listening to our podcast.  Please excuse the poor audio in our first batch of episodes, but I hope you enjoy the content.

Click Firsts in Fiction Podcast to go to all the episodes.

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Thanks for reading and thanks for listening!

What Makes for a Good Magic System

Posted: August 13, 2013 in Writing

photoDo you believe in magic…systems?  I do.  In fact, I believe magic systems, with rules that govern them, make for some of the best story elements in our books.  How do you write a solid, entertaining magic system?  Like I said: rules.

Rule 1: The magic system should fit well within the story you’re placing it into.  Magic isn’t always welcome in a story.  Consider whether it really fits in the story or if you’re attempting to fit the story around it.  Sometimes, a simple foretelling is perfect, but high magic can often color a good story with detrimental deus ex machina saves.  Make sure that the magic system isn’t there to fix the problems, but is complementary instead.  It’s better if it introduces its own problems into the mix. It’s better if it isn’t the fix-all.

Rule 2: Finite access to the magic makes for better story.  You can create tension in a scene when, at the moment it’s most needed, the character has run out of the ability to use his magic.  Setting limitations like this provide opportunity.  Take advantage of it and try to remain consistent with those limitations.  It’s bothersome when a character is faced with a difficult problem in chapter three that can’t be overcome by his magic, but in chapter five, he suddenly and inexplicably has a new power that enables him to overcome something very similar.  We’re left wondering, why didn’t he just do that in chapter three?  It’s R2D2’s rockets

Rule 3: Avoid power-creep.  Power-creep occurs when the character with the magic system somehow seems to get stronger and stronger, exceeding the boundaries of a true magic system and entering god-like areas.  Sometimes, not knowing the top-end of the magic makes for a sense of wonderment and can be good.  This is true of Harry Potter, where the magic never ceased to surprise the reader.  However, even J.K. Rowling implemented limitations.  Knowledge of the craft limited a practitioner’s variety and ability to conjure magic.  Setting appropriate boundaries is critical.  Some ideas for boundaries: knowledge, finite energy source, proximity requirements, time requirement, physical cost, psychological toll, a trinket, proper setup of self and environment, positioning.

Rule 4: Consequences should be considered as a viable balancing solution.  If Hero possesses the power to summon lighting from on high, then perhaps he suffers from severe pain as he does so.  Maybe our antagonist can see the future, but with each vision, he begins to lose his grasp on the present.  Use consequences as a way to challenge yourself and your characters.  Magic is most interesting when there is a price to pay.

Rule 5: Your magic system should be unique.  Readers have come to expect certain standards for magic in the books they read.  This is okay, but it can get boring.  So, I created Rule 5 as a form of encouragement to seek out a new form of magic for your story.  You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but do give some consideration to how your story could be better complimented by tweaking the magic system.

These rules aren’t hard and fast.  They’re a set of guidelines that can provide you the insights you need to stand out among the thousands of other magic-based books out there.  Do yourself the favor of investigating your personal take on magic.  It could prove to revolutionize fiction and could possibly support the formation of a new sub-genre.  At the very least, abiding by some rules and setting good boundaries will yield unexpected outcomes and great story.

Have you done magic in your writing?  Share in the comments!

Diet, exercise, and sleep aside, there is another tool to gain that mental clarity needed to write well: drugs.

There is a growing trend for professionals to take drugs like Provigil (a drug prescribed to patients with narcolepsy), Ritalin, or Adderall (drugs prescribed most often to kids with attention deficit disorders).  According to Tim Ferriss (the author of the 4-Hour Work Week), Provigil has been prescribed to a significant number of Olympic sprinters–I doubt that there are so many Olympic sprinters with narcolepsy.

I’ll mention that a common theme in many talks on utilizing drugs to enhance brain function is that for every gain that you make with enhancements like these there is a trade-off.  Side effects include things like severe drain on energy and concentration levels after taking something like Provigil, i.e. for one day of increased brain function, you will need a day to recover.

Some of us drink coffee or espresso.  Some of us consume herbal supplements like yerba mate or ginseng.  A few of us might drink energy drinks.  I wonder, though, if any of us out there consume drugs to stimulate the creative juices.  Let me know your experiences or what you’ve heard from others on this topic by sharing a comment below.

Check out some of this interesting reading:

http://www.wired.com/medtech/drugs/news/2008/04/smart_drugs?currentPage=all

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/23/magazine/23patients-t.html?pagewanted=2&_r=2&ref=magazine&

http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/lifestyle-guide-11/energy-boosters-can-supplements-and-vitamins-help

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs002130050284

http://www.nature.com/news/2008/080409/full/452674a.html

A Note on Sleep

Sleep gives us time to process the learned information from the day.  It allows our brains time to recuperate, gives us dreams from which inspiration can be drawn, and it allows us to function well the next time we wake. Sleep is a critical component that can solve much of our issue with lack of clear thinking.  Before trying stimulants, take a look at this site for some healthy advice on reclaiming your natural brain function.

http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/matters/benefits-of-sleep