Posts Tagged writers

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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#AuthorToolbox 06: oh character! how thou meow?

Via: Daily Prompt – Loyal

 

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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 #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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#AuthorToolbox 04: the art of landscaping in fiction writing

Via: Daily Prompt – Soil

The cold was bitter, different from New England’s. Outside the city the wind spilled across the sweeping, open land dotted with abandoned farm machinery and old houses buckling in on themselves. You wouldn’t think such houses were habitable, but once in a while there would be a tacked-up sheet in the doorway, or plastic nailed over the windows, and the trace of smoke from a chimney.”

~ Brown, Karen. “The Clairvoyants.” Henry Holt and Co., 2017

51htld99dbl-_sx328_bo1204203200_I finished reading this book over the weekend. And like most well-written (or poorly written, for that matter) novels throughout my reading experience, it left me with a heightened sense of awareness of that “something-something” to consciously add to in my own work. After all, authors learn by reading the works of other authors. I thought, for this month’s blog hop, I would review some of this novel’s more beautifully written passages to summarize how fiction can be enhanced by adding descriptive imageries that are carefully composed and artfully woven to match the subject of the story [I’ll try my best to titillate without giving away any irrevocable spoilers]:

Relevance. Without a doubt, the prose was the strongest suit in The Clairvoyants. Brown approached its various outdoor and indoor sceneries to set the mood for this novel with poetic gusto, addressing both the mental state of the story’s protagonist, Martha, and the themes that adhered to the overall plot, i.e. an observant and slightly self-absorbed young woman with the ability to “see dead people” and a sense of victimhood towards her entire life, who stumbles upon a potential murder mystery when she is abandoned in a new environment. In fact, the landscape mirrors the one prevailing ethos of every character in the novel, who make a motley group of disturbingly selfish individuals, gravitating towards one another in search of companionship one moment and then forsaking each other the next.

Now, beyond my mother’s profile at the wheel of the car, Route 79 wound alongside green swaths of hills still damp from the recent rain. This was an isolated valley with a poor yearly sunlight allotment and haphazard cell phone reception—another version of a sanatorium, a place my mother could tuck me away, the way you pressed a photograph into the back of a drawer—and be free of me. But I might be free of her, too, and I might find someone else to love me.”

Precision. A bit of mastery in the medium of your writing can go a long way – and, of course, shorten the sentences. Words hold connotations that pose parity even among synonyms. Instead of depending on generic nouns and verbs to describe each action, character, object, or surrounding, knowing specific words to allocate to them will not only contribute to their appropriate portrayal but also provide the reader with a richer sensory experience. Obviously, this means having a strong vocabulary is important but does it also mean you need to swallow the dictionary? If you can, kudos to you; otherwise, do a little extra research on each subject matter you introduce in the story, as Brown has in this novel when labeling architectural attributes.

The house stood on a street of similarly grand old places, each shaded by a tree, their roots disrupting the cement sidewalks in front. Mine was a brick Italianate house with a wide cornice and elaborately carved brackets and window caps. The apartment was up a staircase that once might have been glamorous when the house was still a single-family residence. The place had been advertised as a “studio.” I would be living in one room with a twelve-foot ceiling, a decorative fireplace, and an efficiency-sized stove, sink, and refrigerator—so small they seemed like playhouse furnishings.”

Economy. We all know about the taboo on overusing adjectives and adverbs. Adjectives and adverbs are to be preserved for blurbs, and yet, funnily, that is where authors tend to scrimp thanks to a misguided sense of modesty – but that is a topic for another day. Furthering the argument for precision, knowing specific nouns and verbs is particularly useful when editing redundant descriptors that only serve to weaken and obscure the image you are trying to depict.  Consequently, you may also reveal more information about the plot and characters when relinquishing modifiers.

I had thought he wanted me. But when I touched him he took my hands away, like a correcting parent. I was resigned to kissing him, and even that he interrupted with a story about his motorcycle, a Triumph he was eager to ride again in the spring.”

POV. At every turn, it is crucial to ask oneself if the character whose POV is being used to narrate a scene, would actually experience the situation in that manner. For example, cold is a recurring premise in the novel, of which Martha is constantly aware. Other than simply using it to describe the winter that persists throughout the plot or the relationship fostered among the characters (and the wide range of dead people, in retrospect), Brown also associates it with how Martha undergoes the changes in her life or encounters new phenomena, e.g. when she tries martini for the first time.

I admitted I’d never had one, and she insisted I sample hers. She held her glass toward me by its stem, and I took a cautious sip. I said it was like drinking partially melted snow, and she laughed and poured me one, too.”

Pace. While the vivid narration is what I enjoyed most about the novel, the accompanied tangential style also led to its biggest holdback. I could fully understand why, given that the novel was written in first-person and people tend to digress when relating their experiences, Martha would oscillate between her past and present, actions and expositions. In fact, it even added to the mystery. But at one point, this became monotonous when the tempo should have picked up. The mystery began to chase its own tail and Martha’s continued attention to the mundane details of her surrounding seemed unnatural, relatability yielding before consistency, such as while escaping the scene of a supposed murder.

We drove through farmland spread for miles in either direction. Del fiddled with the radio, her hand shaking, and found a station playing Dixieland jazz, and we passed through a landscape distorted by the windshield ice—the wide open space, the few remaining outbuildings of an old farm, their gray, splintery wood darkened by the sleet, jutting like carcasses. “There are bones of families out there,” I said. Spread under layers of soil, compacted in their separateness. The Dixieland band played its tinny hopefulness. We drove this way for a long time until we could see nothing of the land we passed through save an occasional kitchen light in a house set off the road. Then we reached an intersection, a small town, like Milton, with a gas station and a diner, and Del pulled into the diner’s parking lot. After David Pinney died we’d gone on, pretending he hadn’t. I could say we were murderers now. This didn’t happen to other people twice.”

To wit, this novel made me sit up and take notes. My own stories tend to consist more of dialogues and actions than discussions on the setting but I could certainly appreciate the patience with which Brown weighed in the haunting atmosphere in her narrative. It reminded me of something I learned a few months back while attending an online course on writing fiction. There was a lot of emphasis on note taking and journal keeping throughout the syllabus. Until I took the course, I always wondered how writers sit in public places such as cafes and parks while composing tales without becoming distracted by their environments. Turns out they don’t become distracted at all because they are too busy recounting what they witness on their pages and screens.

 

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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#AuthorToolboxBlogHop 02: First Impressions

Last week, in the 17th installation of my Writing Chronicles, I discussed the various ways to “Punish Your Protagonist“. I thought this week, I would make up for it by talking about how to Save the First Chapter.

Wherever you look, literary agents and editors impart a few golden rules: research the agent/editor before you submit your query, provide an economic-yet-comprehensive synopsis of your story in the cover letter, and make sure your manuscript is ready when you send in those first three chapters. In other words, try not to waste this rare opportunity to be read by a professional. Your book’s opening will decide if your story gets picked or tossed.

Getting the first chapter wrong is a piece of cake. We’re writers – an absentminded-yet-observant breed riddled with insecurities throughout our creative process and beyond. Even when we get the story right, we know it could have been better. It can always be better. But with a few simple precautions, that first chapter can be GOOD. What is better than good?

Here’s my two-cents’ worth to a workable first chapter:  Read the rest of this entry »

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WRITING CHRONICLE #15: Contest! & #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

Via: Daily Prompt – Climbing & Jolt

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I have been very erratic about posting on the blog recently. It’s because I’m preparing for a writing contest! Amazon UK has launched a writing competition, the Kindle Storyteller literary prize, and I’ve decided to give it a go. Aside from the £20,000 cash award, it also offers the opportunity of being recognized in a well-publicized platform and a book marketing contract by the sponsors. The money is tempting but the glory would be nicer. That’s one way up the ladder, right?

Now, here’s the thing. No way am I delusional enough to believe that I’m winning. But it will ensure that the judges will read my story and who knows, I may pick up a contract anyway. The award program was announced last February but for some reason, I only received the reminder e-mail, which was sent last week. And the entry closes on May 19! It has to be a previously unpublished story of minimum 5,000 words (which is manageable). I had thought of putting in one of my short stories (we fiction writers always have a few completed works lying around) but decided I was to write a fresh one.  Read the rest of this entry »

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WRITING CHRONICLES #13: Quantity Vs Quality

Via: Daily Blog – Pause & Prudent

 

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Image: Pixabay

 

My weeklong departure from writing gave me time to stop and reflect my goals for producing fictions. While visiting my Grandma’s, I took with me books and TV movies as a fallback plan if village-trotting no longer suited me. It suited me fine but I still found time to finish one novel and two sets of TV movies. They provided good points of activity and discussion with my cousin-sisters.

Living amid rural grace, I felt watching the BBC adaptation of Flora Thompson’s trilogy Lark Rise to Candleford and Hallmark Channel’s adaptation of Jannette Oke’s Love Comes Softly series would be fitting. Both were good choices but I think I was more swept away by Thompson’s work. I had read Love Comes Softly as a kid and, coming by the movies was a nostalgic experience. However, as my cousins and I worked our way through Lark Rise to Candleford, it dawned on me that writers whose work I have come to most revere all have produced so few books. Of course, I have contemporary authors on top of my list who have produced over two dozen novels each in nearly half as many years, but the works I believe to be truly timeless were written by authors who had very few books to pen. It got me thinking, was it the age-old trade-off between quantity and quality?  Read the rest of this entry »

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WRITING CHRONICLES #09: Five

Via: Daily Prompt – Arid

Some five years ago, an interview with a college consultant motivated me to start blogging. A brief meeting with him informed me of the budding world of independent publication when he questioned me why I’m letting a delay in studying creative writing keep me from becoming a novelist. He showed me his friend’s WordPress blog and how this friend had set up an enterprise for himself online, already with a few novels published beyond the traditional channel. This consultant had practically chastised me for not taking the initiative on my own and I am so grateful to him. I don’t remember his name or his friend’s blog site, and I wasn’t yet convinced about self-publishing a “book”, but I was ready to start focusing on building a career as a novelist.

So I opened this blog on February 25, 2012, with the hope that having a live audience would shame me into finally finish writing a full novel. In the end, I did sort of self-publish a novel on this site with serialized posts of the chapters. And even though procrastination ensued now and again, and for long periods at a stretch, I so appreciate the habit working on this blog instilled in me. I started the blog with the objective “It’s a site to make sure I write” and it made sure I wrote.

The career path I was on, tough I enjoyed, did not harbor an everlasting appeal for me. Life seemed barren, my dreams left to dry without nourishment. Now? I live, I thrive.

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Image: Vinegar and Brown Paper

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INSTRUMENTAL LOVE (04 min read)

Via: Daily Prompt – Seriousness

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Image: Zaireen Lupa

I’ve been using my laptop since January 2011. Upon becoming a corporate lady, it was the first piece of machinery I had bought by saving up paycheck by paycheck. I had put in almost a year’s wait while searching for the ideal laptop and, once I found it, for it to receive its tech reviews. I had a friend bring it in from Singapore and it has been my companion these six years.

Oh, Dell Studio XPS 1647, how I love you!

It hasn’t been the smoothest of relationships. Immediately, it started showing speed adjustment issues. If I would even turn on Google Chrome while running my media player, it would throttle for a few seconds. Of course, I was not tech-savvy or laptop-savvy enough at the time to get what was happening. I would hear the sound break, get stuck, and panic until it went away. I looked it up online but not knowing what keywords to search for, I didn’t find any solution. I comforted myself that it was just a temporary break in time so it should be fine. It wasn’t.  Read the rest of this entry »

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