Posts Tagged novel writing

WRITING CHRONICLE #31: name game

Via: Daily Prompt – Panacea

elucidata-hello-my-name-is-640x456Naming characters is one of my favorite activities in the fiction writing process. There are so many beautiful names out there, entrenched in the regions from whence they originate, the time in which they were first derived, the meaning hoped the bearer would inculcate – as a storyteller, I feel as though we are blessed with the opportunity to use so many of them. Without having to really populate the earth with our progeny, of course.

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Image: The Illustration Cupboard

But naming characters requires some thought. Once our story is published, we’re stuck with them, so choosing names should be done wisely. And it’s not only the main characters that require such deliberate consideration. Think Mr. Thomas Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times. Though not quite the minor character, he was no protagonist either; but his name was selected precisely for its phonetic traits, which were meant to be attributed to the role he plays in the plot. Mr. Gradgrind was a middle-class businessman and later MP, but more importantly, he was the head of an educational system that only ever dealt in facts and had no patience for the human frailties known as emotions. He ground the rules and morality into the students and he graded them on their ability to churn out factual statements. Anything more or less was unacceptable, even among his own children. The reason we cannot fully hate him, even though we are wary of his methods and can immediately sense the ominous results they portend, is because he genuinely believes his methods are there for the benefits of his charges. Such is the tragedy of the man Gradgrind and his name squarely sets that tone among Dickens’s audience from the very first paragraph of this iconic novel.

 

Now, I do not consider myself anywhere as accomplished as Dickens or Shakespeare in choosing character names but there are some great directions I rely on. I thought I’d share them with you this week:

Time Period. Not so much as the period in which the story is set, but rather when the character in question was born. Certain names come into vogue in certain eras and this is a good clue to keep in mind when putting the backstory together for the character.

Locality. Another important factor in making the character feel real is giving them a name popular in the region where they hail from. This obviously may be the place where they were born but another avenue one can take is naming the character after the place of their ancestors. One of the things I truly appreciate in the stories written by today’s authors is how diverse their characters are starting to emerge as, rightfully reflecting the globalized communities of our real-time world. If the author wishes to enhance on that, they can easily factor in the character’s ancestral region as source of their name.

Parents. To reflect upon the riddle from The Conjuring 2,

I am given and I am taken.
I was there at you first breath,
But you did not ask for me.
But I will follow you till your death.”

Our names are given to us by our parents/guardians. Therefore, our names are as much a reflection of who our parents/guardians are as who they hope for us to grow up to be. It is only later through the passage of life that our names begin to engender the traits that become us through our accomplishments or failures. Until then, our names are really the properties of our parent’s/guardian’s hopes and dreams. How is that for the name being an important part of the character backstory?

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Genre. We can just as easily rely upon the fictional realm in which the characters exist. Depending on the theme of the story, we can name the characters to symbolize the story’s distinctive features, e.g. a whacked up title like Lord Voldemort for an evil wizard bent on being unique and reigning over magic and non-magic folks alike. Obviously, Adolf Hitler was taken.

giphyRoot Meanings. Or we may name the characters the way parents often name their children in real life – to attribute certain qualities upon the bearer of the name. I always found it curious that Emily Deschanel’s character Temperance from the popular TV series Bones should have been named thus by her outlawed parents. Perhaps they wished for her to have a more moderate lifestyle than they experienced. In any case, Temperance Brennen certainly did grow up to demonstrate restraint in all things emotional, which allows her to so objectively and pragmatically view the world around her. However, we can get more creative with this where, instead of simply picking qualities for names, we name characters after roots of the characteristics we hope for, e.g. naming a very pious woman “Lisa” (meaning Devoted to God). There are a great many websites dedicated to relating the roots and meanings of each name. I started off with behindthename.com but trendier sites have cropped up since.

Alliterative Names. I love alliterating when writing. I know it is almost taboo in the author craft management community (unless specifically used as humor, of course) but there you have it – it is one of my writing vices. But you know where alliteration is perfectly acceptable? Names. Daniel Deronda, Peter Parker, Severus Snape, Bugs Bunny, Steve Stifler… Regardless of genre or medium, history is full of famous fictional characters with alliterative initials for their names.

Pronunciation. Speaking of alliteration, it does make for some tongue-twisting prowess to make them roll off the tongue. A character’s name should ideally be easy to pronounce without needing an instruction manual from the author. However, sometimes authors like to throw us off on purpose to add mystery to the characters, e.g. in Jane Eyre, until the titular character tells her young student Adele her name and Adele repeats after her, who – other than people from old England – could have guessed Eyre to be pronounced “Aire”? I always thought it looked more like “ire” myself (but that might be due to my personal rather-abrasive feelings towards the author). Or the fact that my brother still protests, “What the hell kind of name is Her-my-oh-knee? It’s supposed to be Her-me-own!” Well, take it to the Greek. While Brontë and Rowling could get away with it, not all of we possess the genius to follow suit and survive.

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Name Generators. If the above guidelines are of no help to finding you the perfect name, chuck ’em and just generate a name online such as with fantasynamegenerators.com. This particular website, really a cure-all for me, has a solution for all sorts of permutation-combination of names according to genre, region, pop culture, and whatnot. Also, sometimes it’s just fun to click around to see what the site spews up.

A FINAL WORD OF CAUTION

The idea of coming up with names for your characters is to make them sound realistic (unless you are deliberately aiming for exotic) that is in keeping with the theme and setting of the story. However, at the same time, one needs to cross-check that the characters’ names do not echo in the real world, i.e. to avoid at the best of one’s ability to have a real-life person come back and say you stole their name for your character. Remember: in fiction, murderers have no middle names. It is a trick of the trade to leave out the middle name to avoid accidentally matching your character names with real people. The good news is that while editing, you still have the opportunity to change the names of your characters as many times as you like – only also remember to change the name EVERYWHERE that it appears in the manuscript.

Once you have named your characters, for the sake of skillfully managing them, try to keep the names consistent, which is, there should be a standard name by which the character is addressed unless there is a certain sect within the story which addresses the character with a variant or pet name, as well as dissimilar to other characters, i.e. try avoiding too many characters with names starting with the same initials, similarly sounding names, or names that rhyme with one another, etc.

But most importantly, have fun naming names!

 

[Now, for a personal message: This will be my last WRITING CHRONICLE post for the month of November as well as what I am assuming the first-half of December. I will be posting a blog for WEDNESDAY REFLECTION this week too but after that I’ll be out of commission until somewhere mid-December or however long it will take to recuperate from the surgery I will be undergoing next week. Not to worry! At this moment, the doctor says it is a precautionary measure and we will know more once the post-surgery tests are completed. Wish me luck because I hear it’s going to hurt like @#$% once the local anesthesia wears off!]

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WRITING CHRONICLE #29: the art of conversing in fiction

Via: Expect & Enlighten

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Image: Max Pixel

Last week, for the final #AuthorToolboxBlogHop post of the year, I discussed how to find your character’s voice. It only seemed fitting that this week, I write about what to do with that voice once you have found it. That’s right, I’m talking dialogues.

Dialogues (and accompanying actions, of course) make up the parts of a novel I prefer to read most. In fact, they were a major determinant in the selection of my favorite authors. The more dialogues a story offers, the quicker I fly through it. Because that is precisely one of the advantages that dialogues provide – the ability to move the plot forward. Dialogues reveal new information and secrets that may deepen the conflict or bring about resolution. They make the reading easier by breaking up blocks of expositing prose and instead present a sense of unfolding action, quickening the pace in turn. In fact, did you know that, when perusing books in a store before purchase, readers often look for the amount of white space in the layout to determine how much dialogue the story contains and thus how quick a read it might be? I wonder if that is considered cheating, though.

Dialogues also have the ability to make characters seem more real. For one, real people don’t spend every waking hour observing and contemplating the world around them. No, they converse, they take action. But not only does adding dialogues to the story makes the characters come alive but it also provides a tool to reveal more about the characters. You can expose a lot more about a character’s backstory (and in a much more interesting way) by injecting habits, thoughts and beliefs, dialects and accents, vernaculars and technical jargons, etc. in a few quick dialogues than would be necessary with endless passages of exposition. Dialogues are a medium to strengthen a character’s voice, making it more distinct and consistent over usage, as well as to express the dynamics of the relationships they have with other characters.

There’s a lot you can do with dialogues. And as with any ambitious instrument, they are tricky. Some writers have a natural ability to write interesting dialogues – Jane Austen, Jennifer Crusie, and Julia Quinn to name a few of my favorites; others have to work at it. For the most part, it really requires an observant pair of ears. Yup, eavesdrop until you get the hang of emulating the way people speak. Or else, the following tips may come in handy:

Expositing. It is necessary to remember that people don’t constantly launch into soliloquies or solo productions in their day-to-day lives. The “di” in dialogue signifies an exchange of continuously flowing discourse between two or more persons, and therefore, should not be generally used by a character to narrate the story to another. Even when one character is in the middle of describing an event, other character(s) present should be reacting and responding – unless there really is a podium involved. But even so, keep the presentation short and cover it mostly through brief narratives.

Using fillers. Then again, not everything in real life should be imitated in art. While people often dawdle in small talks before getting to the meat of their conversation, there is little need to weigh down the dialogue in fiction with small talks between characters. If it is not revealing anything important about the plot or characters, ixnay on the chitchats.

Over narrating. Another mistake is giving blow-by-blow accounts of actions that surround the dialogue. Suppose a character throws a tantrum, saying something hateful to another character followed by a walk-out, there is no need to explain the character is angry. The dialogue and actions are sufficient. Let your characters show the readers what they feel and mean; you stick to editing.

The right dialogue tags. Which brings us to dialogue tags. With an endless supply of adverbs, it is often tempting to use the “he exclaimed” and “she retorted”. However, sometimes the “he said” and “she said” suffice. Using too many variations of dialogue tags may become obtrusive, and thus, distracting. Once in the flow of the dialogue, readers much rather forgo of all the additional explanation of how the characters are conducting their exchange; some of it sort of ebbs and flows into the momentum.

Injecting actions. Then again, sometimes action narrations may be used to replace dialogue tags. For example, in a scenario where the hero and heroine are immersed in serious flirtation, their body language can speak volume more than mere dialogue tags:

Eric tilted his head towards Vanessa, a corner of his mouth tipping up suggestively. “How do you feel about taking this conversation to someplace more private?”

Forgoing dialogue tags altogether. Again, sometimes when the dialogue between two characters picks up momentum, after initially setting up the format to show which paragraph of dialogue is being spoken by whom, the dialogue tags may be abandoned:

Don’t be so judgy,” Shabnam advised after putting some distance between them and the boys.

Obaira watched where they were walking to avoid making eye contact with her cousin. “What do you mean?”

“Here’s the most handsome boy in our batch paying you so much attention and you are doing your best to put him off. If I know you – and I do – that means you have something on your mind and it’s not pretty.”

Her cousin did know her too well. “Well, don’t you think it’s suspicious that he starts paying me attention right after I won the contest?” she whispered, looking over her shoulders to make sure the boys wouldn’t overhear. “I mean, we barely ever spoke before – other than to exchange a couple of class notes, that is.”

“I would think that that just proves like is attracted to like.”

“Come again?”

“For a nerd, you’re pretty slow on the uptake.”

“Oh.”

Shabnam rolled her doe-eyes. “Well, he is the top student in our class and you the top girl.”

~ Excerpt from Bad Daughter by Yours Truly

However, notice even while most of the alternate paragraphs did not have dialogue tags or action narrations, every once in a while I reinstated a tag or action to re-acquaint the reader with the character speaking a specific dialogue. While forgoing dialogue tags can help quicken the pace, going without them for too long can also make the sequence confusing.

Getting grammatical. Going back to the realism of dialogues, also important to remember that most people aren’t overly critical of using correct grammar in their everyday conversation. Vernacularly speaking, it is not “The King and I” but more “Me and the King”. So, depending on the education level and upbringing (and sometimes the era) of your character, best if they speak the way people of their time and culture would speak in an everyday setting.

Signs of hesitation. But then, in our every day, we do tend to fumble for the correct words a lot as we speak. Not the right move when writing dialogues. While using an “err” or “um” on occasion is okay (particularly when trying to emphasize a character’s hesitation or confusion), it is quite unnecessary in the general use and only serves to slow down the momentum we hope to provide through dialogues. Remember, we are trying to keep things real, not transcribing a court procession.

Phonetic spelling. Again, in a bid to inject realism, we may be tempted to write dialogues exactly the way they would sound when a character speaks in their dialect or accent. However, unless it is relevant to the plot or the traits of a particular character, we can stick to the generally accepted spellings for words. For example, in Harry Potter, Hagrid’s dialogues are heavily peppered with his West County accent to create the illusion of a less-than-sophisticated blundering-but-bighearted half-giant who “managed to learn to speak English” – it is an important trait that defines Hagrid and is also relevant for the sociological and “racial” divide in the plot. However, while the wizards all come from places far and wide in the United Kingdom, few others are seen to speak with accents because with such a varied cast of characters, it would make the reading material very confusing and arduous once we are done translating what everyone says.

Character names. This pertains to both the address within the dialogue and the using character names with the dialogue tags. The first is obvious: we do not continuously address the people we speak with by their names once the people in the conversation is already identified; we just keep talking by facing them or throw out our statements openly for anyone present to respond to. The second, with regards dialogue tags and action narrations, once the paragraph sequence is established to show who the alternate speakers are, characters names may sometimes be replaced by subject pronouns: “he said” or “she said”.

Consistent punctuations. It is an unfortunately-common mistake in manuscripts where authors keep mixing up which quotation marks they use to bracket dialogues. If you are using double quotation for your dialogues, stick to it. Don’t keep switching between double and single quotation marks at different parts of your novel. Even if you are undecided when you start drafting, by the time your manuscript has been edited and ready for submission/publication, your dialogue format should maintain a modicum of consistency.

One eye on the voice. Speaking of consistency, it is important to provide each character their unique and distinct voice, to be retained throughout the story. Characters cannot be slipping in and out of their… well, their characters. Also, the characters cannot all sound the same. Remember, the character’s voice is an extension of their psyche and therefore if everyone had a similar voice (ipso facto similar psyche), there would be no conflict, right?

 

Yeah, follow all these rules and you should be good. Piece of cake!

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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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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 03: head-hopping and migraines

 

In my twentieth installation of WRITING CHRONICLES, I went into great details about the various types of narrators and POVs that may be used in storytelling. A perusal will tell you that jumping POVs in the middle of scenes is one of my pet peeves. Of course, a scene may be told from the perspective of different characters but there are proper etiquettes to these things. When you are having a conversation with someone, how much would you enjoy being interrupted by the other person while talking? Or worse, if a third party straggler just decided to insert themselves into your discussion midway? The narrator and the reader develop a bond over the course of a story that requires similar decorum. Each character must wait their turn to have their say.  Read the rest of this entry »

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WRITING CHRONICLE #17: Nine Ways to Punish Your Protagonist

Via: Daily Prompt – Exposed

 

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Image: Wikimedia

My life is perfect. Said no one ever. If they did, they’re lying. Human beings aren’t happy until they are bogged down by burdens and bellyaching about it something awful. Be it loud as a hungry cat or as passive-aggressive as my mother. [Hey! I love my mother but she gives me plenty of reasons to complain.]

See? We are never entirely happy and without troubles and flaws. This includes a writer with all expenses covered and the only task to accomplish is finish composing novels to publish and sell. So if the author’s life isn’t perfect, and the readers’ lives aren’t perfect, why should the hero and heroine have it easy?

No one wants to read about people who have it made. Stories are driven by characters and their challenges. Having too much sympathy for your heroes and heroines is equivalent to tying the proverbial noose around the shelf life of your book. You were too kind to your protagonist while writing? Well, get ready to have your readers write off your protagonist.

The solution? Make it hurt and make it count. In other words, make your characters believable and garner enough sympathy – even for that evil douchebag – to make them memorable. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find causes for their miseries – after all, we humans manage to complain about even the best of gift horses.

Easiest is making life difficult for the protagonist. Heroes and heroines tend to hold very deep-seated values, even the anti-heroes/heroines. Ego and integrity raise the stakes for them. Here are some great ways to drive that stake deep enough to leave your character with a gaping wound (by the way, gender-neutral usage of the terminology ‘hero’ henceforth):  Read the rest of this entry »

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WRITING CHRONICLES #16: Finding Focus

Via: Daily Prompt – Root & Blanket

I have decided that procrastination might be the primary vice of my writing career. I used to think I was too preoccupied with my corporate responsibilities but. now that I have switched to writing full-time, I realize the problem is that I can find ways to become preoccupied with just about anything. The burning question is how can a person who loves writing as much as I do be so out of sorts with the writing itself.

Well, I know how. Fear is at the root of my problem. I keep stalling because becoming a novelist is something I always wanted to excel in. Even with my multiple fallback plans, I have stored all my eggs in this basket. Honestly? I don’t want to have to resort to those fallback plans. The pressure is real. Hence, even though I can, in theory, believe in my writing capabilities, living by that faith is a whole other ballgame. Even when what I write seems to satisfy me, I keep wondering what if it’s not good enough.

Resulting in all the bottlenecking of my creative endeavors.

There are some ground rules I try to follow to jar me out of my whack. Mostly, it is to keep me from lulling myself into the fear sinkhole. They work too. Often enough to share the list of precautions with my fellow writers:

Read the rest of this entry »

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WRITING CHRONICLES #14: Mysteries of Life

Via: Daily Prompt – Heal

If ever I coveted a superpower, it would be omniscience. I hate not knowing. Absolutely hate it. Each time I learn something new, my sense of accomplishment is so overpowering that I walk around and go to bed with a smile that would give Mona Lisa a run for the money. My engine runs on knowledge and I think it is what keeps me alive. I think this is the reason why I have a fondness for heroines with active brain matters.

I was once accused by a man that I cannot commit to a relationship because romance novels have filled my head with ideas of an implausible hero. This is an unjust accusation to both me and romance novels. First of all, romance novels are awesome and therapeutic. They set standards for both men and women as individual human beings and not for the sake of a relationship equation. There are no ratios to romances and each story is as different from the other as the two persons it comprises of.

Second, I have no problem committing to a relationship. My current manfriend was once my boyfriend, i.e. when we started dating 12.5 years ago he was still in his early twenties resisting to relinquish his late teens. So I think for a person who remained in a relationship without demanding to be made an honest woman out of, I deserve not to have gamophobia thrown outright in my face. My problem is not knowing what will happen after. I don’t fear divorce, I don’t fear unhappy endings. I just can’t abide going into anything without knowing the end result, whatever that may be. When I used to sit in exam halls, I would grade my own paper before handing it in – and I was pretty accurate in my gauges most of the time.

All this doesn’t mean that I’m a person who enjoys using knowledge to put others down, as know-it-alls are prone to do. Nope, I admire people who ask questions to blot out ignorance because I’m one of them. It also doesn’t mean that I go nosing in other people’s business. Other people’s businesses have generally interested me very little throughout my life, to the point where when I recently visited my grandma, I was shocked to learn that my youngest cousin from Mom’s oldest sister now has a two-year-old daughter. And this was not the only family news I had been oblivious to. I couldn’t apologize enough when the level of my callous indifference towards my relatives unfolded at the dinner table where four generations of labors of love were gathered. I’m just a bit interested in the general stuff – you know? knowledge stuff.

You can say my craving for knowledge borders on OCD. I eat peanuts out of a bowl even after I have lost any taste for it just to discover that perfectly sweet crunch. In fact, I cannot open any pack of snacks without hitting the bottom. That motto for Pringle, “Once you pop, you just can’t stop”? Yep, I’m the poster girl for that commercial. I just have to reach the end, even if the ending has been tried, tested, testified to be invariable. Now, thanks to boxed DVDs and Netflix, I also do not watch TV series until the season comes to a conclusion.

Why am I revealing my greatest weakness to the general public? Because it is also the source of my love for reading and writing novels. I love reading romance novels, instead of living one because I know the damn ending. Even if Will Traynor died and conveniently left Louisa Clark all that money to make her dreams come true in Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You, at least we know he will die. The knowledge that the end holds is at our fingertips. And the only place where I may be omniscient is a novel of my own creation, right? Ah, sweet relief.

Must be nice to be God.

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Andy’s Green-eyed Monster

Via: Daily Prompt – Denial

 

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Image: Pixabay

“I think the table is slanting on your side, love,” Bob observed. “Yep. Look at the water in my pitcher. It’s definitely tipped towards you.”

Andy squinted at Bob as she chewed her burger and swallowed. “C’mon, Bob. Let me push some of this stuff onto your side.”

The table was laid in halves. There was Bob’s side, which contained a big bowl of salad – full of crisp romaine, shredded roast chicken, and diced watercresses in a blue cheese dressing – a glass, and a pitcher of ice water, immaculate as his appearance. He would be having a black coffee later. Then there was Andy’s side, laden with a dish of tomato soup, a double patty cheeseburger with the works, a large basket of fries dribbled with salt and vinegar, and a whipped cream topped peach cobbler, the list ending with an ironic Diet Coke. She had an extra plate to pilfer some of Bob’s salad onto. She couldn’t go without her daily intake of the greens.

“No bloody chance,” Bob now shot down her wheedling with a chuckle. “Serves you right for ordering more than you can eat.”

“Oh, puh-lease! I can easily pack away all of it, you just watch. I worked up an appetite in the ring.”

Bob arched an eyebrow, his usual firm smile in place. “Yes, kicking my butt should do that.” He didn’t look like he minded in the least having his butt kicked by a woman as he forked up some lettuce and crunched into the freshness.

He had such great teeth, bright, straight, strong, healthy. Like the rest of him, Andy muttered to herself as she bit into the only type of beef she could allow herself to enjoy. It was the first week of the month. Her period was due any day now. Must explain why she was feeling so… ravenous.

“Tell me what has you so worked up?”

Andy started at his question, blushing profusely. “W-what?”  Read the rest of this entry »

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