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#AuthorToolbox 06: oh character! how thou meow?

Via: Daily Prompt – Loyal

 

Dangerous Tiger Big Cat Panthera Tigris Predator

Image: Max Pixel

 

 

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Image: Tenor

In preparation for the new season of Supernatural, I was recently watching some of the casts’ Comic-Con videos on YouTube when this member of the audience got up and asked if Jensen Ackles ever falls into his character Dean when handling everyday situations such as, if his car was to be overtaken by another vehicle and he needed to vent his frustration, would he shout at the offender and say – ok, I can’t write that here. But the fan did a perfect imitation of Dean Winchester, from words to tone to pitch, that even Ackles had to praise it – though with startled bemusement. In any case, it got me to wondering, how well do we know the characters we write? How often do our characters reach that level of consistency and distinguishability where a reader would be able to immediately connect a dialogue or thought to a particular character? Because that, my friends, is where we know we’ve got it made.

 

Earlier this year, I blogged about what the writing voice is and how I discovered mine. In essence, to me, the writing voice is the culmination of one’s writing style and their purpose of writing. The same goes for the voices of the characters we develop. Who are the characters we write really and why are they even there? To reiterate the above, in order to ensure each of our characters have a distinct and consistent voice, we need to truly know them – know them the way we would know how a really close friend or relative will react to a situation and know them outside of ourselves so that the author’s voice does not overlap with the character’s.

Easier said than done but not impossible. Here’s how:

The Interview. To an outsider, it might seem totally nutty that an author hosts little tête-à-têtes with his/her characters but this is one of the most common advice I have received at any writing circle, official or among Twitter friends, whenever I stumbled across a block with a character. What better way to find out who your character is than to simply ask them, am I right? This, of course, would have been easier if the character in question (excuse the pun) wasn’t a figment of my imagination. But to make the process less convoluted, a good place to start asking questions is their opinion of other characters they interact within the story and the various issues they face. The various lookouts (list below), then, during such an interview would be to monitor the emotional intensity with which the character responds to each question, make notes of the nuances delivered, and then ask follow up questions based on the responses.

 

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Accept Them For Who They Are. Your questions answered, you must learn to not become judgmental by what you have discovered about your character. You may ask me, how can an author disapprove of the character he/she has created but I have seen this happen in works of others and have been guilty of it a few times myself. It is that moment in your story when you start to exposit on why a certain character behaves a certain way to distance yourself from that character – to show that this character is obviously not you and that you would never behave that way. Don’t do that. Remember, you are not in the story so your readers know better than to attribute your character’s flaws and fears on to you. More importantly, your character is the way they are because the traits they embrace are relevant to the plot as well as the relationship dynamics of your story. Let them be who they are, for authenticity’s sake. Also, if you do not remain faithful to your creation, no one else will.

 

Take Them Out For A Spin. If an interview does not do the trick, it’s time to really get crazy. Do a little exercise with your character such as having them over for company for a week and taking notes of how you imagine they would behave in everyday situations, positive and negative, that you face during that time. It will allow you to become accustomed to their reactions to the world and help you get into their mindset. You may crank it up by actually behaving like your character and then including in your notes how others respond to you as well. [Full disclosure, while actors do it all the time, I have to really bring out my inner prankster to get that wicked.] Alternatively, something simpler like having the character write a letter to you or another character in the story to see how they relate to others is also useful though perhaps not as stimulating.

Ok, I’m fresh out of techniques here, really. Truth be told, the interview method has been working well for me so far. On that note, here is the query form I have pieced together over time that seems to get me through to my characters (or is it, get my characters through to me):

  • What is the character’s mode of address? Formal or informal? Does the mannerism persist from their upbringing, education, or profession, etc.?
  • For that matter, what kind of education has the character received and how has this affected their level of intelligence and intellect, thought pattern and speech?
  • What is the character’s cultural background and what impact could it have on their vocabulary? Does it fall into a particular dialect? Does the character allow this vocabulary/dialect to show during their speech? If not, why not?
  • What is the character’s speech pattern? Do they use short or long sentences? Are the words they use vernacular or profound? Why?
  • How emphatic is the character? Do they emphasize on their words to prove their point?
  • Is the character cynical or naive, full of satire or respectful? How do they observe the world around them? How does it affect the way they speak? Are they gruff or humorous, edgy or laid back?
  • What is the character’s general disposition towards others? Is the character prone to profanities or graciousness?
  • How quick to response is the character? Does it make them naturally witty or aggressive?
  • Is there any maxim that the character lives by that affects their behavior? Or else, does the character resort to any catchphrase or verbal tics?

To wit, how the character thinks and behaves and speaks depends on who they are, for which the author needs to really sort out the attributes and backstory of the character. The character’s voice is very much also connected to the POV(s) used in the narrative and it is up to the author how much of the character’s voice they will allow to seep into the prose when writing from a certain character’s viewpoint. Whatever the decision, dialogue or action or thought, consistency and distinction is the key.

Before I leave off, I invite you to share any other method you use to find your character’s voice.

Nano Blog and Social Media Hop2Finally, a word on the Author Toolbox Blog Hop:
#AuthorToolboxBlogHop is a monthly event, hosted by the gracious Raimey Gallant, featuring various resources and learnings for authors written by authors. It is open to writers at all stages of their careers and the rules of sign-up are available in the overhead link. Also, if you are just interested in connecting with actual authors and see what they have got to say, the sign-up page has a list of participants to direct you to their pages. Happy reading and writing, fellow authors!

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WRITING CHRONICLE #28: character-driven vs. plot-driven

Via: Daily Prompt – Elastic & Superficial

 

I think most authors, at least in the initial stages of their career, tend to lean towards writing either character-driven or plot-driven stories. Whether your stories are more plot-driven or character-driven is trivial, as both styles work suitably and most readers are able to dive into either form of literature with easy appreciation. What is important to remember when you write, regardless of which way you lean, is that the plot and characters in either narrative forms do not act independently of one another. Whichever style you may choose, the plot and characters each influence the outcome of the other and should work cohesively towards heightening the conflict and deriving the resolution to keep the story moving or having any true meaning. With experience, of course, it is hoped that our writing styles achieve a bit more pliancy with regards to these two types of narrative.

 

And the first step towards that endeavor is to realize WHAT EACH OF THESE COURSES OF NARRATIVE TRULY REPRESENT:

A CHARACTER-DRIVEN STORY deals with the internal and/or interpersonal conflicts of the character(s). It focuses on the inner transformations of a character or the character’s relationship with other characters in the story. Such a story aims to showcase the MC’s character arc, i.e. how he/she grows throughout the story. The character-driven story relies upon the plot to develop the character. The story offers a series of events through which the character arrives upon the elemental question that defines his/her transformation, or the transformation of his/her relationship with another. The character-driven story has the advantage of connecting at a deeper level with the reader because the characters are so often realistic and relatable.

A PLOT-DRIVEN STORY is one that focuses on events rather than the transformation of the character(s). The character undergoes a sequence of plot points, each of which compels him/her to make a choice, which then either works towards or against the character’s goals, pushing the story forward and backward, creating a story arc. The plot-driven story showcases how a character responses to the situations he/she is thrown into, often depending on split-second decisions rather than deep-seated character motivations. The conflict lies in the circuitous plot that all act in opposition to the MC’s goal(s). The plot-driven story has the advantage of plot twists, actions, and external conflicts which build the tension and keeps reader motivated through to the end.

AGAIN, HOW ARE THEY NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE?

In the CHARACTER-DRIVEN STORY, it is through the story arc (a.k.a. plot arc) that the character achieves transformation, whether reconciling with self or another. The events in the story push the character(s) to question their own motivations and desires as well as face their fears and flaws, thus helping the character arc to take shape.

E.g. The Big Bang Theory, where we witness Sheldon Cooper, an awkward academic genius who, through a series of mishaps and advisement of his friends, learns to navigate the emotional intricacies of the human mind and proper etiquette of the social scheme.

In the PLOT-DRIVEN STORY, who the character(s) is/are will decide how they respond to the situations they are thrown into. The character(s) still work towards a goal and the plot points act as the conflicts that keep the character(s) from achieving the end game, hence developing the story arc.

E.g. Supernatural and the Winchester Brothers, who are forced to vanquish the various monsters-of-the-week and, though they each love the other dearly, the situation pushes them to act against each other’s decisions as often as working together.

HOW DO YOU PLEAD?

I confess that my stories tend to be more character-driven. And while the plot does help my characters to “discover who they are” or “what they need”, I’m still mastering how to make my stories full of page-turning plot twists.

Which narrative course do you prefer to employ when writing your stories? Or for that matter, as a reader, are you generally drawn towards plot-driven or character-driven stories?

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WRITING CHRONICLE #27: to what end?!

Via: Daily Prompt – Circle, Popular, & Athletic

As authors, we can easily accept why the opening scene is the more popular topic of discussions among our craft management forums [read #amwriting and #writingtip chats on Twitter]. I, too, wrote about the importance of a good beginning on this blog once (first chapters) or twice (prologues). Okay, maybe it was three times (some bits to look out for when publishing). The reason is obvious: Regardless of how superb and valuable your story may be down the pages, write a flat opening scene and face the eternal disdain of your potential readers (agent, editor, or end audience) [or in case of self-publishing: critique partners, beta readers, and angels who give unrepresented writers a fighting chance].

But the God Honest Truth is that every chapter you write is important, right down to the last. The end may come at the end, but no way should it come last while planning your novel. In fact, I make a point of roughly ideating how I want my stories to finish at the same time as I plan the central theme and first scene. Outlining the rest of the chapters comes after. Or I don’t outline and just write scenes up for my own entertainment [which is actually not the thing to do when writing novels pay for your electricity].

The point is, a good ending serves several purposes that you simply cannot overlook:

  1. It brings the story to its logical (and most often desired) conclusion thus ensuring reader satisfaction and relief
  2. It reflects upon and clarifies the purpose of telling the story to generate active response from the reader outside the story’s realm
  3. It forms an enduring engagement between the reader and the story that outlasts the reading process
  4. It keeps the readers coming back for more, a.k.a. great marketing for your next book!

For that matter, it bears asking what makes a bad ending? Well, some of my pet peeves are:

  1. Characters behaving uncharacteristically [suddenly], which may have made sense with a gradual arc but the author forgot to layup the reader to expect such developments
  2. A forced rushed resolution to the plot conflict that leaves me stumbling around in the dark with no flashlight and a case of vertigo, asking “what the hell just happened?”
  3. Deus ex machinas that conveniently rescues the hero/heroine from their predicaments by introducing some unexpected new force into the story
  4. A long rambling essay that explains why things happened the way they did (frankly, at this point, I have read enough and don’t bother carrying on till the last line)
  5. No ending at all where the story just dwindles away without a resolution because the author obviously gave up

Well, that’s just the way of it, now, isn’t it? All of the above bad endings have a dank whiff of abandonment, which is just no way for an author to treat his/her work. I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes even when the characters, plots, and themes of a story is really gelling together, the ending isn’t completely obvious.

Or the original ending I planned no longer seems to be working.

Or I may have worked on the story for so long that I become too fatigued to give the ending a good go.

Or, or, or.

The many reasons why an author might botch the ending may seem nearly endless. Just as there are many lookouts to guide authors to a good ending (some of which I discussed in my post on how to write a happy ending for a romance novel). But a good way to avoid ruining the end of your novel is to simply put the story away for a while. Sometimes a little distance can provide new perspectives. Just as every relationship needs a bit of “me time” to flourish, so does the author’s relationship with a novel he/she is writing.

A very wise professional once warned me, “You want to do this? You want to write novels for a living? It’s not a sprint, my dear, it’s a marathon. Gear up and hit the gym!” Clichéd but relevant. Novel writing is a long arduous process that may not always be entertaining [as one would hope]. For the most part, it’s just a lot of tedious hard work. So even if you’re just a chapter or two away from the finish line, put away your work if the “THE END” does not convince YOU and if it’s taking a toll on your general good sense. Pause for some electrolytes. Come back to it later and work on something else in the meanwhile.

Err… What about the deadline, you say?

Lucky you. You have a deadline to work with. *smirks with jealous condescension*

The alternative to “taking a break” is going back to where you started. Again, just like in any relationship, sometimes we need a little reminding as to why we signed up in the first place. Just to get through the temporary turbulence, you know?

Where was I? Oh, yeah, circling back to the beginning.

If you’re lucky, you have a detailed outline to fall back on. If you’re not as lucky [which is probably the case, or else why would you be having any trouble writing?]:

# Sometimes you may go all the way back to the sheet of paper where you jotted down the inspiration for your story. A scene you witnessed in real life, an issue close to your heart, a character in a movie that interested you. The spark that made you think “what if” and got you writing. The fact is when you started writing your novel, you must have had a reason. Your personal agenda as the author. Depend on it to guide you. The ending is where you drive your message across.

# Speaking of purposes, sometimes you have to rely on your MC’s agenda. There is a reason why the character is on this dang journey. Where did they start? Where do they need to go? Do a little review and help your MC get there.

# Sometimes this can be the first chapter of the novel. Reading back to the opening can remind you where the MC was and how can the end change that situation for him/her. Or maybe it doesn’t change at all and the MC is back to square one and now must contend with the situation. Whatever the case, allow the MC to gain new insights to be able to handle the end – feed the character arc.

In fact, the first chapter is [as often as not] a good place to end. No need to emphasize on the relevance of coming full circle to create an impact. But bookended scenes also tend to do a good trick in getting my admiration so that’s a clue for me as a writer. Here, I must subject you all to a reminder of what a bang-up job J.K. Rowling did in coming full circle with the Harry Potter books. There were so many times I had an “Aha moment” while reading the series because some element in one book tied to something so unassuming in another that I was constantly returning to a previous book while reading a new one for reference. I still do, in fact, during my annual revision season. And how about coming back to that killing curse, huh? The “Boy Who Lived” lived again! And how his willingness to sacrifice himself protected those who were present for the final fight. Dumbledore’s man? – Lily Potter’s son through and through!

But bookending scenes may also have the opposite effect from wowing the reader [bringing me to why I came to write this post today, in the first place]. Last night, I got around to watching My Cousin Rachel, starring Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin (two actors I generally admire but who did a piss-poor job of convincing me of the characters they were playing). While I could see how the opening and ending scenes mirrored one another in the way where Claflin’s character Philip is just adopted and raised by his cousin Ambrose at the beginning of the movie and at the end has two boys of his own that he does not know how to raise, the reason for this mirroring quite escaped me. Especially since in a story that seeks to depict a series of misguided whims on Philip’s part where he first believes Cousin Rachel married then killed Ambrose for his money, then falls for her himself and refuses to listen to reason from his friends about her attempts to swindle him out of his inheritance, and then again is convinced she poisoned Ambrose and now is poisoning him until he plays a purposely-by-accident hand in her death himself that he comes to regret, the whole point of how he is raised or should raise his children has no bearing. I suppose since he was brought up in a virtually female-free society, he had little guidance regarding how to function like an adult male when impacted by Rachel’s glory but so what? His boys have their mom. Going back to the beginning with the did she/didn’t she, I felt, was wholly unnecessary – or should I say, having the whole did she/didn’t she at the beginning? And apparently, it’s adapted from a famous 1951 novel, too. But possibly the adaptation is the usual stupendous leap away from the original literature, who knows? [I have possibly saved you from watching the movie with this whopping spoiler; maybe you can read the book and tell me it is written better?]

Anyway, my point is, the ending of your novel deserves as much careful consideration from you as an author as the beginning. To answer the titular question here, the opening you write for you, i.e. to capture your audience; the ending you write for you reader, i.e. to satisfy the audience.

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Tiny Tales

When fairytales and fables are condensed to political quips and lessons. Had to reblog!

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By Anna Kander

“Mom, tell a fairytale! Can you do it in six words?”

“Hmm—”

“Alice in Wonderland?”

“Well, it’s 2017 … The Mad Hatter gets himself elected.”

“You made it political!”

“I teach politics.”

“Aesop’s fable about hard work?”

“Grasshopper ran. Ant voted for him.”

“Come on. Try The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”

“‘Failing’ boy spreads fake news. Sad.”

“Mom!”

“Boy Who Cried Wolf: nobody tells that story anymore.”

“MOM!”

“Jack and the Beanstalk: Beanstalk? We’ve giants to kill—here.”

“I can’t even—”

“One more, sweet daughter: Kissed frogs. Lived joyfully. Beautiful tadpoles.”

“What do you call it?”

“Happily ever after.”

     
Anna Kander is a writer in the Midwest. Her tiny stories have appeared in Nanoism, tweetpulp, Story Seed Vault, TweetLit, and 121 Words.

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WRITING CHRONICLE #26: out of the funk, into the writing!

Via: Pamper & Planet

Last week, my post was quite academically dense. So this week, I thought I would write about something lighter – a home subject if you will.

I thought I would discuss writer’s block and procrastination. Yup, I’m airing out my most intimate limitations here. And let me just read out the disclaimer now because not everything I claim in the following paragraphs will resonate with every one of you. I’m writing about what has been my challenges (self-made or enforced upon) and how I manage to handle them.

Here goes…

Writer’s Blocks? Myth or Reality?

Very real. But not always without influence from yours truly.

If you have followed my blog from the beginning, you will remember that my longest absence from the creative writing outlet was four years. I started posting the first-draft chapters of my novel I’ll Be True on this blog and then halfway through, I disappeared. I knew the ending of the novel but the approach to the climax was ever elusive and I just couldn’t get through to the other side. Nor did I have the time or energy to work on it given how all-consuming my full-time career was. That was a REAL writer’s block.

More often than not, I suffer from self-induced writer’s block. What the hell is a self-induced writer’s block, you say? Well, it’s that uncomfortably comfortable zone that blends the line between a real writer’s block and procrastination. Let me give you an example. There are often times when I have the next chapter/scene – characters, dialogues, actions, etc. – at the ready but because I’m not fully convinced I laze about to give myself more time to percolate. Self-doubt and second-guessing prevent me from putting the scene in my head into my hard drive. Meanwhile, I do other things, anything on Planet Earth really. What’s stopping me? Not just laziness but laziness brought on by a subconscious notion that if I do document the words into a chapter and then it’s just all wrong, I’d be wasting my time and energy. That’s self-induced. That’s sabotage. I work mostly on MS Word. Easily erasable if the scene turns out to be rubbish. But I do not want to commit. I don’t write until I’m well and ready even though I know not-writing is the real waste of time.

What makes this procrastination is the fact that I hide behind less taxing more entertaining tasks such as binge-watching the old seasons of The Big Bang Theory before the new one airs. What makes this a writer’s block is that the fear that I’ll write a less-than-satisfactory scene is real and it’s crippling. Obviously, I have not perfected the art of draft-first-edit-later. And so on…

Swimming Out of a Cesspool of My Own Making

Fortunately, there are exercises that help me get out of my procrasti-blocks. Sometimes they work individually and sometimes I combine them when one doesn’t get me out of my funk immediately. They require, what I like to call, a “balanced indulgence” from the perseverer. If your problems are anything like mine, you can give these a try:

WRITE INCOMPLETE

When – and only if – I can convince myself to really put my scene/chapter onto the pages, I will give myself a Free Pass ahead of time that I’ll not try to write the passage perfectly; it will be just gibberish that flows through my head. I tell myself this is just notes for so and so chapter, an outline, a short tête-à-tête between my characters that I may or may not use. I take away the pressure and put the proverbial wool over my mind. Now I know this method sounds like so much nonsense but sometimes it works. Keep in mind that such an occasion when this works is rare and a favor from fortune when it does.

DAILY ROUTINE

Boring but it works. When I manage to whip myself into some form of discipline and commit myself to a particular time slot in the day to write, guess what, I get more writing done! This routine doesn’t stick for long periods – maybe a couple of weeks at a time or at most a month before I lose all concentration and go back to procrastinating – but while it lasts, I can really get ahead in my drafting and editing. The rules are simple. I will write for at least 30 minutes every day at so-and-so time (preferably early so that if my writing takes off I can clock in longer hours). And, again, there is no pressure to use this time to absolutely add chapters to my novel. I could be outlining, brainstorming, or writing just about anything as long as I’m writing at that time of the day. What happens, eventually, is my body and mind clocks in at that hour of the day to write. I itch to get to my laptop or notebook and get some work done. And ultimately, my novel does benefit from it greatly.

FREEWRITING MEETS WRITING PROMPTS

Freewriting – a term that was all the rage during my junior high years (a favorite activity of my eighth grade Language Arts teacher Mrs. Anger) but I have recently adopted this method to free up my head of the clutter. I have combined this with writing prompts because I feel there should be some guideline otherwise where is the challenge? Sometimes, if my mind is already free and receptive to suggestions, I just use the prompts (I use the Daily Prompts by WordPress) and hop to it. Other times, if my mind is already full of an idea, such as when I’m outside and something I see is inspiring, I try to develop that idea around the word prompt of the day, which is often more challenging. Some might call it cheating but I get some really creative work done this way and my writing skill continues to improve in the process. Also, doing this exercise in lieu of working on my novel helps me to loosen up and not resent my novel-writing goals. Oh! And one last thing. This exercise should be a timed thing, i.e. there should be a time limit like 30-40 minutes dedicated to this so as to not let freewriting occupy all your time and energy. Trust me on this, I got addicted to writing prompts really fast earlier this year, which ended up distracting me from writing my novel instead. You don’t want that to happen.

PHYSICAL EXERCISE

I don’t know about you but I hate sweating. Shortness of breath, heart ready to crash out of my chest, not so much – but soiling my clothes (yes, sweating feels every bit as unhygienic as that sounds) and the mottled red my skin turns to (I think the fact that there are people who get a “healthy sheen” and “golden glow” at the gym and look even more vibrant after a workout is completely unfair) is what keeps me from physical exercises. In the summer, I shower 2-3 times a day just to ensure there isn’t any sweaty residue stuck to my skin or clothes. I’m just schizo like that. And despite that, I must advocate that physical exercise is good for my writing. On days that I do work out, my body feels lighter and my mind more active. I want to do something, I need to write. And you know, getting that itch is half the battle won.

SAY WHAT NEEDS WRITING

On the off chance that there is no writer’s block and the only thing keeping me from putting my ideas to paper is my very lazy behind, I use a voice recorder. That way, a really good idea, or a fledgling idea that could turn into a really good idea, isn’t lost because I didn’t grab the opportunity to jot it down. If my laptop is on hand, I use the Windows Speech Recognition app to directly transcribe everything I’m saying (the app needs to calibrate for voice and pronunciations first so that one doesn’t really end up with sentences that make no sense), or else I just record into my phone for later transcription.

CHANGE OF SETTING AND TOOLS

I don’t always write comfortably on my laptop although since I’m a super lazy person and everything I write will eventually need to be on my hard drive, my laptop is the preferred equipment for writing these days. But my longest writer’s block (you know those four bleak years) was demolished by the resourcing of this really cool notebook and the perfect pen. Really, the smoothness of the pages to allow the pen to glide over, the width, height, and thickness of the binding perfect to rest my hand on, the sharp nib of my pen to get that scratchy sound that tells me I’m writing (!) all sort of brought me out my ennui. Also, I was on my first real vacation out of contact range from my office in over five years, sitting in a transit restaurant at Changi Airport, waiting for my secondary school friends to rescue me from years of monotony. The change of pace and space and the magic notebook-pen combo all were conducive to working on my novel again, Alhamdulillah! Yes, it was liberating enough to thank my maker.

DRINK COFFEE

All of the above exercises are my healthy go-to to start writing consistently again. However, sometimes all you need is a just a rich, smooth, foamy cup of joe. I don’t drink coffee every day just to keep this wonderful drug potent. But when I do, I fully allow myself to enjoy the sweet-bitter aroma to relax my eyes and mind, the effervescent sensation tingling behind the bridge of my nose and across my temples, curling up at the nape of my neck, from first sip to last. Mmm… I think I’ll have coffee today. Move my workstation to Crimson Cup. I feel a productive day coming on already J

VACATION

Sometimes you just need to chuck everything and go on a trip. Like I always say, writing is a career like any other and it’s good to take breaks. Return refreshed and with things to write about. The problem with procrastinating is that even when I’m having a freakishly good time not getting anything done, it’s not satisfying. The guilt niggles so at the end of the day, I have neither done any work nor is the entertainment anything but fleeting. So I make sure to just give myself off-days in the week or block vacation time each season to keep from burning out.

 

I said the material for today’s post was going to be light. I didn’t say anything about it not being lengthy.

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#AuthorToolbox 05: cranking up the tension

Via: Daily Post – Tentative & Flavorful

Writing page-turning unputdownable literature is what every author aspires to. A reader can pay few greater compliments than to say a book had kept them up all night – perhaps at the risk of going about their following day with weary eyes but a mind still churning from the residual adrenaline. What motivates a reader to commit to such happy exertion? Tension.

TENSION ON SURFACE LEVEL

Tension evokes an emotional connection between the reader and the character(s). It compels the reader to assume the interests of the character(s) as his or her own. It may even elicit physical responses in the reader as it coils and unfurls with the progression of the story – quickened breath as the stakes are raised, sigh of relief after the climax has come to pass. However, it is not to be confused with conflict.

CONFLICT AND TENSION

I’ll admit that until very recently, I believed tension and conflict to be interchangeable since they tend to work in close association. To be more accurate, conflict often leads to tension but tension is not an inevitable end of conflict. Conflict constitutes of more evident elements within the story, i.e. forces acting against each other to prevent a character from achieving his/her goal(s); tension works in the abstract and can be best defined as the anticipation that is aroused and quieted via the pieces of information that is gradually revealed during the storytelling process. Conflict is a movement within the plot that provides the story with a reason for being; tension succeeds in moving the reader in tempo of the plot by hinting at “possibilities” of what could be. However, while it is ideal that conflict helps to build tension and, thus, the reader’s need to discover “what’s next”, once again, this is only possible where the reader has formed an emotional  connection with the characters, scenes, and situations in the story.

TENSION ADDING LAYERS

And since tension is build upon the uncertainty and anticipation of what is to come, it may work at various levels – from creating a momentum where the character(s) and reader absolutely share in the emotional undertaking to where the experience is exclusive to the reader – depending on how much information of the story is revealed to either/both the character(s) and the reader. Tension may exist within a particular character (inner turmoil of the protagonist), between characters (information gap resulting in misunderstanding), in every scene (moving the story forward or backward), and in the overall story (central conflict that moves towards a climax and resolution). In some instances, tension may also exist between the narrator and reader to which the character(s) may remain absolutely oblivious (an unreliable narrator perpetuating a deception). However, whatever form in which tension reveals itself to the reader, it is a vital ingredient in storytelling that ensures the author has captured the audience for the duration of the tale and, as authors, we had best know how to use it.

STIRRING UP TENSION

Characters & Conflicts That Matter. The reader is bound to be more invested in the story if it depicts character(s) with whom the reader is able to relate. Also the reader needs to be able to believe in the stakes that are raised when imposing the challenges on the character(s). When the characters are interesting and dynamic and the conflicts are compelling, the reader’s interest is piqued.

Secrets & Hesitations. A common cause for tension between characters in stories is the failure to impart relevant information. If characters made a point of always being open and honest with one another, seven out ten of challenges to their sustainable relationship would probably resolve before even occurring. And we would have no story. So instead, authors cultivate a sense of insecurity that induce character(s) to hide information from their various counterparts. In return, such actions not only spread misunderstanding but also a sense of secrecy that may lead to distrust. When villainy is the objective of the day, a character may willfully withhold information to foil the bliss of the hero/heroine. Such gaps in knowledge within the realm of the tale may lead to the audience to commiserate in the woes of the character(s), motivating them to see it through to the end.

Audience Knows More. Often the narrator reveals facts sooner to the audience than to the character(s). As an outsider, the reader is privy to information that an omniscient narrator possesses but of which not all the characters are yet aware. Reader knows what to expect whereas the characters do not and the tension builds around the uncertainty of how soon will the characters figure out the truth for themselves and how they will react when they do. In such a case, a sense of superiority may also act upon the reader to stick to the story. However, when applying this mode, the narrative must be arranged in a context where the truth would not be as obvious to the character(s) as to the reader.

A Gradual Reveal. While the audience may anticipate situations sooner than the characters in the story, it is also important not to show one’s hand too soon. Pacing the narrative where only fragments of information is revealed at a time can proliferate the reader’s innate desire to solve the mystery.

Forward & Retreat. Even as the plot progresses, scenes may be written to divert the characters from reaching resolution. New challenges may be added even as old ones are managed or the character’s stakes in the outcome may be raised.

The Right Atmosphere. Sometimes it all just boils down to the setting. Tension in the world surrounding the reader may filter into the character’s life. Admit it, walking down an empty corridor in your workplace during the day would feel relatively innocuous when compared to walking down the same empty corridor one evening when you had to stay back late. If we manage to successfully spook ourselves in real life, the same anxiety born of a sense self-preservation exists in the characters we write. On the other hand, in such a situation, which reader wouldn’t want to vicariously investigate the passing shadow of a person in the periphery of the character’s vision?

A Clipped & Monosyllabic Style. An author may also inject tension into the writing style. Using shorter words and sentences may pack a punch to a tense scene that profound and roundabout passages could miss out on. It is the same rule that applies when developing a character who is meant to be foreboding. And since I must, take Mr. Darcy for example. Mr. Darcy was intense and he hardly ever said a word in the initial acts of Pride and Prejudice unless he was forced to and, even when he began to open up a little, it was only to pontificate on topics most essential to his own self-worth and salvation.

P.S. ON TENSION

However tension is implemented in the story, the author must also ensure there is a balance on when and how much tension the reader is exposed to. Tension must be given opportunity to ebb and flow so as not to overtax the reader. Just as tightening the tension can propel the reader to continue turning the pages, reader must be allowed moments of reprieve to release some of the tension without having to put down the book.

THE ABOVE MATERIAL MAY NOT BE A GRIPPING READ BUT THE SUBJECT IS NECESSARY AND RELEVANT NEVERTHELESS.

 

Nano Blog and Social Media Hop2Finally, a word on the Author Toolbox Blog Hop:
#AuthorToolboxBlogHop is a monthly event, hosted by the gracious Raimey Gallant, featuring various resources and learnings for authors written by authors. It is open to writers at all stages of their careers and the rules of sign-up are available in the overhead link. Also, if you are just interested in connecting with actual authors and see what they have got to say, the sign-up page has a list of participants to direct you to their pages. Happy reading and writing, fellow authors!

 

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WRITING CHRONICLES #25: back to the chalkboard with new dilemmas and insights

Via: Daily Prompt – Continue & Finite

 

 

I went away for two weeks to prepare for/attend a cousin’s wedding and when I returned, I found my access to all things WP blocked. Hence, my monthlong absence. Since this is not the first time it happened to me, I didn’t go into immediate panic-mode like I did last November.

You see, every once in a while, the Bangladesh government likes to shake things up by blocking server access to various blogging and social media sites in a bid to “combat” cyber terrorism. This is because Bangladeshis really enjoy our right to the freedom of expression and often use social media/blogging as means of venting frustrations towards various stakeholders in our everyday lives and the world in general, which, of course, also includes the government itself. The government attacks the platforms randomly to monitor activity. What they really mean is, “Hey! You’re using your freedom of speech, kudos to you. But just remember to be cautious how you use it because, you know, words can hurt.” Wish our government wasn’t such a pansy about taking criticism but there you have it.

Of course, this Summer, I have been very cool about it but, last winter, I was pissed. There was a whole lot of name-calling involved and contacting various bodies of government to tell them to do their jobs professionally. Finally, the WP Support Center helped me out by contacting the communications board in BD to see what was really going on and after a week or so, all road were clear to go. I didn’t go into all that this time. In fact, the only time I felt a niggle of frustration was when I received a notification about likes or comments or other activities on my site that I could not fully access to review and approve or reciprocate fellow bloggers with my reading what was happening in their part of the blogosphere.

Instead, I took this opportunity to catch up on my reading (just crossed 75% of my Goodreads Reading Challenge even though I had a late start this year), chill with cousins and the new cousin–in-law (a really sweet girl), buy a new laptop since my old one had been running without a battery for the last six months (the new laptop is a smoothy when it comes to typing, btw, and so far near perfect), get my hair colored burgundy with flaming red streaks (a bit of a shock for my loved ones but I think I’m rocking it), re-run Roswell (why did they cancel that show after only three seasons), and really take some vital decisions on continuing my WEDNESDAY REFLECTONS column (even though I didn’t get much writing done the month).

Which brings me to my very critical dilemma: I’m an author aspiring to become a well-revered author. Is it really fair for me to review the works of fellow authors, especially that of contemporary writers? I mean, I try my best to remain impartial in my reviews of books but ever since I have taken on novel writing full time, these fiction writing courses, and etc., I have become really critical of every nittygritty aspect of creative writing. While it has made my reading experience richer and more profound, it has also dampened the sheer joy of curling up with a good story for entertainment’s sake. It has made me slower at reading, too, and I was already perusing at snail pace compared to, say, my best friend. But this has made me think that while I want all writers to do well out of a spirit of fellowship, I also tend to nitpick more often, searching for plot holes and believability, and that I think shows up on my reviews at time.

At the same time, I’m also conscious of the fact that when I’m inspired by a book or it really manages to annoy me, prompting me to write the review, it is actually building me up as a writer too. I am learning what I should work on and what to avoid when drafting and editing my own manuscripts. So with all these pros and cons of reading like a writer, I have been really in a bind as to how to continue with my WEDNESDAY REFLECTIONS, which I write for my “Works of Others” blog category. Finally, this is what I decided:

I can’t stop reviewing novels. I mean, books are my life and now, hopefully, on its way to become my life’s work. I love learning from them whether they are good, bad or ugly. But what I will do is cut down on the number of works written by current authors because… even the best are still learning every day and at this stage, I have yet to prove my worth so it is really not fair of me to judge my contemporaries. To recompense on the fewer book reviews, I will increase on critiquing fictions created in other mediums such as the silver screen or television, and also share my learnings from pure classics. Because dead authors can’t come to call me out for a duel at dawn, right?

I’m quite decided on this. But, of course, I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t second-guess myself. So I’m throwing this out to you guys:

Is this a good decision? Should authors be free to critique and review the works of fellow authors? Let me know what you think in the comment section 🙂

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Headshot of my newly dyed burgundy hair with flaming red streaks !

I’m updating this post with my photo only because some of you requested. I’m terrible at taking selfies and far too self-conscious to ask someone else to take my photo. Generally, not a very gracious subject, much to the consternation of my loved ones. So pardon me but this was the best I could cough up (reason for the need to scroll down).

I did, however, do a bit of editing like adding a filter before uploading it 🙂

 

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16 Comments

Wedding in the Family !!!

Via: Daily Prompt – Fragrance

 

The side effect of having been born and brought up, then living abroad my whole life is never truly bonding with relatives. Worse, with my father’s job as a diplomat resettling us country-from-country every half-a-decade, I sort of built a sense of emotional independence that to outsiders might seem like detachment. I’m the sort of person who is caring about everyone in general but close to only a tight-fisted handful. I won’t call to check up on people but if someone needed my help, I’m there – I like to help.

 

On the practical level, I find that there is just not enough time in the day to keep up with all the friends and relatives one accumulates over a lifetime. On the emotional level, I can never comprehend why anyone would want to keep up with my life – I don’t think I’ll ever stop feeling like an outsider – and therefore, I don’t give others the opportunity to reject me.

They find ways to reject me anyway.

Particularly my relatives. I don’t blame them. My relatives, especially cousins, have grown up with one another all their lives. They know each other’s interests and emotions on the root level. I grew up all over the place, my interests are not similar to theirs and neither are my emotions. My reactions are paused and analyzed while they tend to just lay it all out there. To my cousins, even after interacting with them at family gatherings for the last dozen years that we have been settled in Bangladesh, I’m that aloof girl who is too arrogant too self-sufficient to mix with them. Whereas, I feel that they are more engaged more involved with one another for me to penetrate the fold. It’s a vicious cycle and quite unbreakable.

When my father retired and we finally settled down in Dhaka, I had hoped that I would actually have the time to foster a proper bond with my cousins. This did not happen. The fault is mine. I had to get through my BBA and MBA and then “the corporate life” hijacked all of my attention. I realize now that given that I am the outsider, instead of expecting them to accommodate my lifestyle, I should have evolved enough to fit their calendars.

But instead, I subscribed to the Business Plan. You know, the one that is a grade above the Free Plan where you have not enough at stake to actually care about what goes on and therefore only receive spams but not as premium as where you get your own personal representative to always keep you up-to-date about the newest developments. It’s the plan that promises I will attend the family events just like anyone else but probably will not always be available for impromptu get-togethers and brunches on the side. The brunch invitations never came because the problem with interacting only at family gatherings is not knowing all the secrets that are shared during all the other meetings to understand what the discussions at these gatherings are really about. Still out of the loop.

In fact, it seems that settling down in Bangladesh has done more harm than good. When we lived abroad, I at least had the excuse of national borders to not know what is going on. But now that I live in the country, I have a moral obligation to subscribe to the family newsletter and contribute also by divulging all the secrets of my own dysfunctional life. I sound resentful and sarcastic, I know. No wonder they don’t like me.

Thankfully, I do have a set of cousins with whom I get along superbly. My mother’s favorite-sister-and-best-friend-for-all-purposes lives with her family just down the road. The proximity has made my interaction over the years frequent enough to form a true affection for one another. We share secrets and trade gossips and do all the things that cousins do. Of course, these cousins are some 7-9 years my junior, but I don’t let how pathetic that sounds stop me. I love them with all my heart and am pretty sure they feel the same way about me.

And one of them is getting married! The younger one has been living in the US the past year for his Ph.D. in applied physics and is returning for the tail end of summer vacation to marry his fiance. He will be here for only three weeks but we have been working tirelessly to get all the wedding paraphernalia ready in advance. Do you see that? WE are getting things ready. I’m in the fold of all the engagements and I have thrown myself in to participate and assist wherever I can – with relish. I’m facing all the crazy emotions and hurdles that weddings pose and I’m loving it. Let it be wrong shades of roses or raspberry filling instead of strawberries in the cake, I’m ready, baby!

Which is why I cannot post my regular WRITING CHRONICLES or WEDNESDAY REFLECTIONS the next couple of weeks. I hope the above ranting makes up for the truancy. But I cannot say that I’m sorry for the lapse as it is all in the cause of achieving one of my life goals.

Hooray for me!

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WRITING CHRONICLE #24: the happily ever after

Via: Daily Prompt – Quill & Caper

 

There is a growing trend of romance novels with alternative endings to HEA (Happily Ever After). There’s HFN (Happy For Now) and also conclusions that are not so happy at all – like hero/heroine/both die(s). This post is not about them. I’m a traditionalist when it comes to romance novel endings. I’m perfectly fine putting my romantic MCs through the mills during the conflict phase, but the resolution must be that they live and enjoy a full life together. Anything less than that is an overpromise – nay, a prank on the unwitting reader.

 

Which brings me to my next point. For centuries, happily ever after has received a bad rep (among non-romance-readers, at least) and to no fault of its own. I don’t understand why people feel that romance novels set “unreasonable expectations”; if anything, I believe they set a standard we should all aspire to. Why should a person settle for anything less than happiness in love? What else would be the point? And for those people who think “happily ever after” is equivalent to a permanent cheering charm, let me assure you, it’s not. It means that our couple now knows that to stay together they will have to work at it and face the ups-and-downs of relationship; but long as they are teamed up, they will remain content and it will be okay. In fact, that the couple goes through so many obstacles during the novel to reach that place where they decide they were meant to be together is a testament to their commitment. So happily ever after really just translates to

“Committed ever after. Happily.”

Having said that, for a romance author, attaining closure is not that easy. I mean, as a reader, you must’ve realized how each time you reach the end of a good book you feel that sense of bereavement when finally putting the book down, right? Well, you have spent only a handful of hours getting to know those characters; imagine what the author must’ve felt closing the book on those wonderful characters after giving birth to them and then nurturing them for months, maybe years. So a romance author (or any kind, for that matter) needs all the help he/she can get to give their writing that flourish.

So what does a good romance ending make?  Read the rest of this entry »

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WRITING CHRONICLE #23: prologues, anyone?

Via: Daily Prompt – Passenger & Sail

Image: Wikimedia, CC0

Prologues. Some authors swear by them; some readers roll their eyes at them and skip ahead. Me? I believe that, like most literary devices, prologues have their time and place, i.e. some stories need them while other stories are better off without them. If used with moderation-but-pizzazz, The Prologue is a vehicle that may really put your story into gear and make the reader buckle in. However, writers without a firm handle on the steering wheel may drive their story to an early death [especially when querying], so beware.

Ok, enough with the vehicular metaphors. Here are two lists of when and how prologues may work – or not:

Read the rest of this entry »

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