Posts Tagged writing fiction

WRITING CHRONICLE #36: cave walls and tapestries

Via: Daily Prompt – Fabric & Fact

I know I’m a couple of days late in submitting this post. My brain drew a complete blank this week when it came around to writing about… my writing experiences and learnings. This is probably due to not having written much over the last couple of weeks besides what you will find on this blog. There were few fresh experiences for me to draw from. As I waited for inspiration to hit me, I caught up on my Watchlist and, sure enough, my standard researching go-to pulled through.

stories

Image: Self

I saw The Breadwinner last night and, during Act I of the movie, the father kept insisting the protagonist retell the stories he had taught her. She was wary of the task and lacked confidence in her ability to remember the details or add spirit to her recitations that her father so naturally exhibited. I understood her anxiety; it is an anxiety we, all authors, become consumed by every once in a while. Will our stories be relevant, will they create an impact? Will we connect?

As the father continued to reiterate to the daughter that telling stories was their tradition and why it was important that she continue the tradition, I began to re-appreciate how selfless an act storytelling can be. Amidst the terror and oppression of the Taliban regime, it was the one tradition that they could uphold because it did not cost anything more than a conversation between two persons – however secret. It was the one way that the truth of a time before the Taliban reign could stay alive for future generations to look back on. As long as there were people telling the stories of their pasts, the Taliban couldn’t obliterate their identity. Storytelling was a risk they would just have to take.

But storytelling isn’t just the tradition of the people of Afghanistan; it is the one tradition that all of mankind has had in common since languages were invented. In Genius, Colin Firth’s enactment of the legendary book editor Max Perkins describes to the self-absorbed Tom Wolfe (Jude Law) in the movie how ancient a form of communication storytelling is. That when the cavemen sat around the campfire at night with nothing to do but worry about all the dangers lurking in the dark, they told each other stories. Stories kept the dread of the dark at bay while campfires became more than sanctuaries, they became a symbol of communion.

Today, we discover scratch marks on cave walls and marvel at the presence of mind and resourcefulness of our ancestors to have preserved the evidence of their existence at a time when they didn’t have the comfort of the knowledge that archeologists would one day unearth their fossils and fittings even without the tips they thought to leave behind. But archeological findings only tell us what we may surmise ourselves; while cave arts communicate the rendition of the stories the Neanderthal themselves wanted to share with us. How much more personal the communication then becomes, how much more generous the act?

In junior high, we didn’t study English, we had Language Art classes. Because that is the form storytelling eventually took. It became more than a means of preserving history. It became methods of imparting ethics and morals, life lessons and standards. It made learning pleasurable and it glued those learnings to our memories. Go online and you will discover a hundred reasons why storytelling is important in everything from early childhood development to cultural constructs to the field of marketing. From reiterating facts of our past to inventing fictions based on our present or somewhere in between, storytelling can take on many forms and shapes from using words and symbols to threads and paints.

But, returning back to the lesson the father was trying to impart to our protagonist in The Breadwinner, the one thing we, authors, must remember is that storytelling is meant for more than our self-gratification in the ability to tell a story well, to impress; the true reason for telling stories lies in the “why”. Realize why you must tell a story and the hesitation will resolve itself.

Why do you tell your stories?

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#AuthorToolbox 08: tangled in titles

Via: Daily Prompt – Compromise

 

book title

Media: LinkedIn

 

I first attempted to write a full-fledged novel when I had just completed my ‘O’ levels. While waiting for the results to see which junior colleges I qualified for, I drafted half a novel with the vigor of a hummingbird. Then I spent six years editing the chapters I had written, eventually suspending the project indeterminately with the hope that distance would help me solve how to fill the gaping plot hole that stared back at me every time I pulled up the file. But plot holes isn’t the topic of the day; it’s titles – something that I struggled with for eighteen years before learning to lock in place.

For the longest time, this file was saved as ‘Book’ on my hard drive. After hitting the roadblock in my story, I decided it was finally time to give it a title – you know, for a little variety in occupation. Upon reflecting a great deal about my protagonist, I decided her prickly personality was key and came up with a name that makes me want to molt all the quills in my cap. I changed the file name to ‘Cactus’. No, it wasn’t a book on gardening; yes, it was indeed a romance novel. If ever there was a woodpecker trying to drill a hole in an iron skillet, it was I.

Avian metaphors aside, the title is one of the most versatile marketing tools for a book. Regardless of how brilliant a story is, with a generic title, it may be hard-pressed to attract readers. The title can raise curiosity about the content or suggest a solution to the type of materials a reader is already in search of. It may follow a textual motif that links to a series fiction or become a brand symbol for a product expansion.

 

Even more important than the cover illustration, it not only compels the reader to select a particular book from a pile, ut also becomes a point of reference and recommendation at a later time. The tweet on the right that recently blew up the Internet proves this point well. I think we have all been in the shoes of the reader who requested the red-jacket book. I still haven’t been able to track down this 90’s YA romance novel about makeover and student election and environmental politics that featured a boy, a girl, and a full-length mirror on the cover. I had bought the book through the old Scholastic Book Club order flyers but someone pilfered it from my shelves some twenty years ago. [Note my not-so-subtle cry for help, in case anyone is able to shed light on the title/author]

 

This is what happens when the title lacks one or more of the following CHARACTERISTICS:

Conspicuous – Before anyone gets around to reading a book, it must first pique reader’s interest enough to grab the book. Yes, an eye-catching cover may do the trick but think about it, the book cover may not be present during a discussion between readers when one person is recommending it to the other(s). Be it racy, divisive, over-the-top, or poignant, it must excite curiosity for the content. Meaning, it’s okay to get gimmicky here.

Memorable – Speaking of recommendations, name one item that is more dependent on end-user reviews than books. Word-of-mouth can move mountains [of books] for an author. However, for it to be effective, the book title must be easy to comprehend, quick to recall, and ready to roll off the recommender’s tongue, right? Similarly, the recipient of the recommendation will be more likely to give up the search for a book they can’t remember the title of because, after all, there is no dearth of reading materials out there.

Explanatory – The title should give the reader an idea of what the book is about. That is not to say it becomes a five-word summary of the story; rather the title should imply the genre, tone, and thematic subject of the book. Informative titles also make it stand out for relevant readers, i.e. readers who are specifically looking for literature that a book offers. Look at it this way, the only thing better than a #tag is the title!

Verbally Fluid – This links back to being memorable but it’s more than that. As already mentioned, the business of books is dependent on recommendations. Pack the title with words that have complex pronunciations or phrasing that plays tongue twister and the reader will be less inclined to passing on the good word to fellow book lovers.

Appealing – A provocative title may attract a lot of readers; even debatable titles gets a pass by inducing reader to engage and discover the other side of an argument. However, regardless of the stunt pulled to make the book title stand out, it must remain palatable. Maya Angelou’s insight “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” aptly applies to book titles. A title that makes a reader feel embarrassed or otherwise uncomfortable, whether due to difficulty in pronunciation or by presenting a socially unacceptable viewpoint, will probably not be brought up in public. It’s also how books get burned.

No short order but these attributes may pave the road to success. Yet, authors often give the title less thought than due. Honestly, having come up with and written down a story to completion provides me with such a sense of accomplishment, I often feel as though my job is done. However, some of my transgressions have been more reckless. I’m not alien to feeling impatient towards the end of a writing project, especially one that has consumed more time than originally expected. And since I almost always wait until the end of the composition to title my stories… Well, you see where I’m going with this.

If only there was a STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE TO CRAFTING A BOOK TITLE. Hold on a second, could this be it?

Step 1: Finish writing the story first. Despite what I mentioned about my impetuous nature, I still recommend waiting until the completion of your story before sitting down to crack that title. The reason is, regardless of how well you have planned and plotted your story when starting the project, there is always a chance that by the time you reach the end, you may gain new perspective towards your work. Writing is a time-consuming task that gives you ample opportunity to grow as a person as well as an author – make the most of that growth when devising the title.

Step 2: Decide the main purpose of your book. Once the book is written, the central message of the story should become much clearer. A good way to sift through the salient points in the story is to discuss them with friends, critique partners, editors, etc. Now is the time to talk about your thoughts and feelings regarding the story you have written. The aspects of your story that the sample audience is most responsive to is probably a good indicator of what will work with a wider pool of readers and provide great angles for stimulating titles.

Step 3: Brainstorm. Step 2 is really there to take inventory of all that the story has to offer. Keeping in mind the relevance of the book for the target audience as distinguished while deciding its purpose, brainstorming is when you finally let loose your creativity to come up with a title that meets all the desired attributes mentioned above. But first, a few suggestions for the brainstorming session:

Keep a title jar. While ideally brainstorming for titles should be kept aside till you finish writing your story, you may very well notice a phrase befitting your book or be struck by inspiration amidst your project. Write it down and put it in a jar to come back to later.

Be mindful of the narrative voice and POV. The tone the narrator assumes and the POV through which the whole or majority of the story is related should be reflected in the title, as it plays an important role in informing the reader what to expect.

Keep it relevant. For that matter, the title should match both the story told and the audience targeted. Whether you’re banking on the central theme, protagonist’s identity, contextual symbolism, or a famous quote, the title must provide meaning to the story. At the same time, it helps to share similarities with successful titles in the genre of the book.

Don’t give away the ending. While the title should pique the reader’s curiosity and provide an insight into the theme, don’t undermine the plot by revealing too much even before the book is read. Allow the title to raise questions but make sure to withhold the answers.

Add hidden layers. Titles with double meanings, i.e. which touch upon evident motifs in the story as well as underlying themes and morals, are great for wowing the reader. While this ploy may not contribute to the reader picking up the book initially, it can provide an overall satisfaction in the reading experience, which the reader may retain and refer to others.

Don’t limit your options. During the brainstorming session, fill your title jar with as many possibilities as you can think of. Feel free to use both short and long phrases and explore the various sources (more on that below) from which you can lift ideas for the title.

Step 4: Narrow down to your favorites and run a self-test. Sound out the words to your shortlisted titles. Could any title benefit from alliteration? Does it provide the prospect for coining a phrase or new word? Is it clumsy or pleasant? These are just some of the details to keep your ears out for. Some titles may profit from a little rephrasing to make them less awkward; some of the longer ones may need shortening. They say the ideal fiction titles are limited to five words. I’m not sure how true that is but I have come to realize that action words create more impact and that using precise nouns and active verbs give reader the sense of delving into the story from the get-go.

Step 5: Make sure the title hasn’t been run ragged. Check Amazon, Goodreads, Wikipedia. Google it and see what comes up. Try to remain in the fold of your genre but do not blend in like sheep.

Step 6: Recruit title reviewers. Take your list of favorite title options and ask people what they think. Ideally, these people should have read your manuscript first so they are aware of the pertinent points of the story. Listen to their feedback carefully but with a grain of salt, then reevaluate your options.

Step 7: Make your final selection. Revisit Step 2 and see if the final title you have chosen fits the goal of your book.

Sounds like a lot of work, huh? So is true about most things that reap great benefits. The good news is that most of these steps can be performed by rote. In fact, the true challenge is convincing yourself that your book is worth your reader’s time because it is only when you have found your book’s purpose that you will be motivated to go through all the nitty-gritty of discovering the perfect title. So…

WHERE DO YOU LOOK FOR BOOK TITLES?

Trending titles in the genre – Different genres take to different types of titles. Complex names often lend the right amount of gravitas to literary fictions but then may also require subtitles to provide context; historical romance novels tend to focus on the identity of the protagonist(s). Obviously, these titles are working with the targeted audiences in their respective genres. What’s not broke &c.

Thematic titles – In character-driven stories, thematic titles are used to present an idea of the protagonist’s journey. The focus is frequently on the conflict that adds to the MC’s struggles and injects mystery to the title by using metaphors or symbols associated with the said themes.

The MacGuffin – The MacGuffin, which represents the plot device or a desired objective for the protagonist, may also be a part of the title, as it also reflects upon the potential course of the story.

Protagonist’s name, role or traits – This is perhaps the more deliberate route taken to naming a character-driven story. Though simplistic and direct, the protagonist’s implied limitations can act as a strong stimulus for readers to identify with through the title and, thus, induce them to read the book to learn the protagonist’s fate.

A focus on fellowship – Some plot-driven stories revolve around the actions of a group of people that add to or reverse the course of the central conflict. In such cases, the contribution of no singular character is enough and, therefore, the title may feature a group of characters instead.

Unusual Setting – Where the major conflict or goal for the protagonist is presented in the form a place in the story, the title may assume the name of such a place.

Event – A significant event that starts or turns the course of a story is an excellent source for a title.

Famous words – Whether lifted from a song, a poem, or a quote, popular phrases seem to have a pleasant effect on titles, touching upon what the reader is already familiar with, and, hence, make such trendy titles.

From the manuscript – For that matter, why not list all your favorite lines in the book? Keywords or inspired phrases in the book that rightly express the essence of the story may just deserve their place in the spotlight.

A compelling story deserves a compelling title. It would be a sad state if after putting in all that work in writing a best-seller, the success is marred by a lackluster title. What do they say, in for a penny in for a pound? Well, having the perseverance to work on that title is well worth it.

So, how do you come up with your titles?

 

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 #35: a conflicted constitution

Via: Daily Prompt – Conjure & Lecture

 

Those who visited my blog in the spring of last year may remember how I came about to publish my ebook Bad Daughter; since, in the greater scheme of things, this is rather a trifling detail, I can’t hold it against you if you do not. Still, for the purpose of this post, allow me to briefly recap the event that led to this mismanaged milestone in my writing career.

Around mid-April 2017, I came to learn about a fiction writing contest being hosted by Amazon UK for international authors old and new to win large in distinction as well as cash. The contest had been open for some time and there was just over a month left to the deadline, after which, the entered stories would be reviewed by a panel of renowned authors and publishing wizards assembled under the banner of, what is basically, the most influential book distributor of our time. A challenging feat, especially given the time constraint, but since the rules were fairly simple, I decided to give it a go. All I had to do was publish a story of above 5,000 words via KDP Select that was never before circulated in any form or medium. Right? Wrong.

My genius plan was that, even if I didn’t win first prize but my story was shortlisted, I could make some very important people in the industry sit up and take notice of my writing. Talk about being jacked up on confidence. What I missed was the inferred rule, i.e. the competition wouldn’t simply be on the storytelling aspect of each entry but will also factor in how much sales and positive reviews they generated before judges even took notice (because, obviously, any competition that commits £20,000 for the first prize would probably attract a hell lot of authors). But misconstruing the fine prints wasn’t my true inadequacy; it was my lack of vision and the inability to set my priorities in the correct order.

I had been toying with a story idea for some time for which I had just enough research materials to concoct a simplified plot with a justifiable character arc to produce a sizeable novella. At the time, I was convinced it was the perfect solution for this short order. Since the premise, too, was a notable departure from what I was used to writing, I felt this was a good opportunity to embark on something new without compromising too much of my time for the novel I was already working on.

It was still women’s literature but I knew even before I began writing that, for the sake of the central theme, the tone and style would have to differ substantially from my previous fictions. While I generally write contemporary romances with elements of chick lit for adults, the story I was planning to write was literary fiction banked on own voices appealing more to YAs and NAs. Yes, I was as confused about how to categorize my novella as this sounds. Already, I was beginning to wrinkle the fabric of my potential success. But I allayed my worries with the knowledge that this story would be published under a new pen name using my first and middle initials instead of the full name [not very original, I know].

As the first draft practically wrote itself, I finally began to comprehend how important a story I had to tell – one that was truly worthy of the public’s attention. Using fear of social stigma to silence victims of child sexual abuse too often begin from home and it needs to stop regardless of the source! Though my grasp of the subject was still not as extensive as my growing interest would have it, my opinion on the matter was decided. The route to fighting back abuse is through discussion, not silence, I felt. So I began to want to use my novella to get that discussion rolling. Perhaps, some vain part of me also egged me on with the notion that the subject may indeed get me past those thousands of entries into the top ten list, but I was also becoming uncomfortably aware that I could no longer play fast and loose with such a fundamental subject as this if I were to succeed.

Perhaps I should have stopped myself from publishing the novella then. Perhaps I should have forgone the contest and strived to write a full-sized novel with a stronger structure and clearer moral before making the ebook available to the public. Alas, I was too myopic to realize that stoking my pride because I had publically committed to entering the contest now could come back to bite my fulsome behind if my story was too inconsequential to impress the readers.

I pushed through and I was actually satisfied with what I had accomplished – over 37,000 words drafted and edited and compiled for publishing in less than a month! And the contest, too, was such a platform to get this story out on. It was like a fire had been lit under me and I had become desperate to get a book published under my name [albeit with only my initials]. The result? In my haste, I wrote my choppiest story to date and put it up for sale. What a stellar beginning to my career as a professional author.

If you are sneering at me, you are welcome to. Heaven knows I have directed enough sermons at me on the detriments of using shortcuts to achieve success. No sooner did I publish the ebook, I decided to rewrite it, to be shuffled entirely back to front. I thank my stars now that I didn’t go for print simultaneously and could sell only four copies of the ebook. Two of them were purchased by friends so I can always tell them when I upload the revised content but I feel sorry for the two schmucks who thought to give an unknown author an opportunity to prove herself. Hopefully, they will get the update notice that Amazon promises whenever an ebook content is updated.

You must be wondering why I have gone off the hinge berating myself on the eve of Valentine’s Day, confessing my most shamefully shoddy undertaking. Well, I know how authors are always chasing due dates; it is entirely easy to break down under pressure or be enticed by the opportunity of a publication, but don’t do it until you are absolutely sure your story is ready to be read by your audience. Not only will you be hampering the opportunity to write that compelling story within you, you will be doing your author self a disservice.

In other words, don’t be an impatient fool like me.

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Wednesday Reflections #35 – Bewitching the Duke by Christie Kelly

Via: Daily Prompt – Tardy & Dominant

15746024Title     Bewitching the Duke

Series     Wise Woman #01

Author     Christie Kelly

Genre     Historical Fiction | Regency Romance

Publisher      eKensington

Publication Date      December 6, 2016

Format      eBook

Setting     Regency England

ISBN     1601830289

Synopsis: It’s 1814 and while the upper crust English “Society” has come to consult certified physicians for their medical needs, plebeians continue to depend on the local wise women to take care of everything from delivering babies and setting bones to cleansing homes by burning sage and ensuring a good harvest for the season. Selina White, the wise woman at the Duke of Northrop’s country seat, takes her role in the community seriously, upholding generations of tradition passed down through the female line in her family. Her efforts are appreciated by one and all in the region except the Duke himself, who has deigned to grace his estate after having abandoned it to decline for nearly a decade. Colin Barrett’s disparage of wise women stems less from the growing belief that medicine should be administered only by university-trained male physicians and more from his history with Selina’s mother, the former wise woman of his land whom he blames for the death of his wife and baby during childbirth. So when he unwillingly returns to his ancestral home that holds so many tortured memories to arrange a wedding, only to discover Selina very much active in practicing her craft not only among his tenants but also within his household, he is incensed. First, he throws her out of his home and then he banishes her from his land. However, he miscalculates her determination to do her duty by his people as well as the loyalty said people harbor towards her in return. Pretty soon his servants are sneaking her back into Northrop, hiding her right under his nose in the unoccupied wing of his house, and business recommences as usual. To further complicate the matter, with every chance encounter, the instantaneous attraction that sparked between Colin and Selina when they first met continues to grow – an attraction that begins to transcend their individual prejudices and encounters that become less and less chance on both sides.

Experience: In all honesty, I’m a snob when it comes to book covers. The illustration absolutely plays a part in whether I’ll invest in the book because, to me, it shows that no effort was spared from start to finish. And this book’s cover instinctively warned me to not pick it up. Nevertheless, when I read the blurb and learned the premise of the book, I was intrigued and decided to risk it. It so happens that Bewitching the Duke confirmed both my earlier misgivings as well as my latter anticipations. The premise of the story does manage to uphold the originality it promised and the cover of the book accurately portends its poor execution. However, that is not to say this book was a total loss.

Let’s discuss the premise first, which after all helped me move past my superciliousness. Immediately, we are informed how the advent of modern medicine threatened both the livelihood and the tradition of wise women in the English society even as the poor continued to depend on them because male physicians were more expensive as well as due to the somewhat retained superstitions that surrounded these women’s healing capabilities. We are introduced – though it is kept in the background for most of the novel – the transferal of the role of the “caretaker” of people’s wellbeing from the female to the male, bringing into sentience yet another instance of how the culture of gender inequality became more dominant as the old religions receded further into obscurity. [I should acknowledge here that I love a story that makes me dive into a little history research of my own!] In Bewitching the Duke, the change comes in the form of the Duke of Northrop who openly declares Selina a hack upon his return to the country and uses her mother’s role in the fatal childbirth that prematurely terminated his domestic happiness as evidence. While his tenants and servants continue to store their faith in her powers, he does not make it easy for them to access her services.

This premise also neatly proceeds to generate not only the romantic conflict in the plot, i.e. a man who blames a wise woman for the death of his wife and child cannot fall in love with her daughter who also is a wise woman and vice versa, as well as the character arcs for both the hero and heroine, given that Colin is unable to move past the memories of his loss to allow himself to love again while Selina herself harbors a guilty secret surrounding the said loss. The trajectory of the story is set with ease and since romance novels generally promise happily-ever-after, we know that somehow the two main characters will have to get over their individual issues and the “wise woman” must rise to the occasion to reign supreme. Yay!

Except, maybe the historical accuracy is completely forsaken to keep the premise of novel adjustable to its length and, thus, the level of effort required, i.e. to say, the story was set a century or three too late. By the nineteenth century, wise women had largely receded into the background of society, most of them having suffered enough horrors related to being labeled “witches” to justly hide their abilities from the public. If these women still dared practice medicine, it was in secret. Say, for the sake of the plot, we, as readers, accept that wise women continued to openly practice their crafts in some remote corners of England where people were optimistically more open-minded, the novel completely avoids any mention of the religious persecution and social ostracism “alternative healers” suffered in the historical period immediately preceding the time in which the novel is set. For me, that was a no-no. Even if the author wished to have none of that “cloaked in the danger of religious persecution” mystery hanging ominously over the characters’ heads, why avoid any mention of what had once happened to Selina’s kind when her knowledge and powers still carried the same mysticism as witches? Alas, a lovely premise was thus unhappily stifled for the convenience of the narration and the result was a loss of intrigue and integrity that encompassed the true history of the subject.

The characters themselves were simple enough to follow. I felt, while they lacked depth, the romance between them brewed in a forthright fashion that I could appreciate. They were obviously each meant to grow out of their attractions and dilemmas towards one another rather than alone, which is always appreciated in a romance novel. It cries true of the notion that true love takes precedence over past conflicts. Yet, the characters were put upon more as plot devices than entities in and of themselves and kept switching foot on one another to add more twists that the story could have just as easily have done without.

There was one particular part of the novel where I could not reconcile with Selina’s character. When Colin confesses to her that he thought he saw the ghost of his dead wife in the unoccupied third floor window of his house, Selina does not set his mind at ease even though she realizes he had mistaken her passing the window for his wife’s ghost; instead, she enjoys a private bit of joke at his expense. This does not present a raving endorsement of her character as a human being, does it, especially when considering how tortured Colin has always been about losing his duchess?

I did enjoy a glimpse of the country life in the story though, which retained the essence of the hypothesis the author was aiming for, i.e. the continued importance of the wise woman in a country neighborhood where people can barter for her services and believe in the influences of pagan rituals without fear of ridicule. This is nicely reinforced with a scene in a fortuneteller’s tent at the traveling fair that all the primary romantic characters of the series attended. The fact the fortuneteller’s words are taken more seriously than a simple diversion shows the reader that here is a society that is not entirely jumping to relinquish the old ways. This I found refreshing and reason enough to keep reading.

Recommendation: Despite some flaws, the story is actually an original one and may be appreciated by readers who are suckers for historical romance and mysticism. Just remember, “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down!”

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#AuthorToolbox 07: avoiding perfection

Via: Daily Prompt – Study & Loophole

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about sainted characters. It all started when I sat down to watch John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher success Halloween for the first time [yes, truly]. After a month-long Christmas movie binge, I was ready to shake things up a bit and, although fully prepared to be blown away by the cult classic that apparently gave birth to so many of my favorite horror movies from the 90’s, twenty minutes in, it had me rolling my eyes and sighing in exasperation. Jamie Lee Curtis is Mary Sue:

giphy

Media: Giphy

The Virginal Barbie: Despite being all shiny and blonde with a great body, Curtis’s character Laurie is the shy girl-next-door who can’t bring herself to divulge her feelings to the boy she likes, making her the unattached dream girl who won’t give a man any lip.

The Sharpest Tool in the Shed: Not only is she at the top of every class, she’s probably also psychic. She is the first to notice the man-in-the-mask watching her and her friends as well as the only one who continues to sense his foreboding proximity throughout the movie.

A Goody-Two-Shoes: She can’t break rules properly even when she tries. The one time she allows herself to be peer-pressured into smoking a little pot, she ends up right in front of the sheriff. Though her transgression goes unnoticed, she chooses to walk the straight and narrow for the rest of the movie.

The Old Reliable: She always picks up the slack. She can be counted on to drop off keys to a real estate client for her father, make popcorn for her babysitting charge, and relieve her best friend from babysitting duty while the said best friend spends the night doing the dirty.

It’s Lonely at the Top: Early on in the movie, we see her experiencing all the teen angst that accompanies an austere lifestyle and become sympathetic to her plight.

A Badass Martyr: Even when the killer slices open her arm, her first lookout is to make sure the kids are safe, maternal instinct in guerilla warfare mode. And she’s pretty resourceful with a knitting needle too. Who doesn’t love a girl who can simultaneously knit and kick butt when called to action?

DIE, FEMINISM, DIE! But, even aside from the misogynistic rigmarole, that is a tall order for any character. And while I accept that, in horror movies, death following sex is expected, by the end of the movie, I was convinced that the only reason Laurie survived was that she didn’t show any skin. By the end of the movie, I wanted to throw her out the bedroom window. Sadly, while I believe the makers of Halloween intended Laurie to be The-Li’l-Lady-That-Could, fiction writers are equally prone to creating accidental Mary Sues. I would have to say, tar me with the same brush.

MY TOO-PERFECT CHARACTER

Only, mine was a Gary Stu. When I first started writing I’ll Be True in 2012, I understood little about structuring plots, developing characters, weaving conflicts, or building tension, etc. I was confident I had a voice and was often praised for my diction, which was good enough to publish the first draft of my story on a public platform, a.k.a. this blog. Besides, I was too hopeful that having an actual audience would cure me of my habit of abandoning stories before they were finished being written. Embarrassing as it is to admit, it wasn’t until I wrote the entire novel and read back all twenty-six chapters to myself that I realized my protagonist’s romantic interest, who also happened to be the second MC, was insufferably unspoiled.

tenor

Media: Tenor

Matthew Halls was a wish-fulfilling Mr. Perfect I had written when I was going through a rough patch in my longstanding relationship. He looked good on paper, was always the voice of reason, and had the luck of Indiana Jones with a heart the size of a blimp, talent oozing out of his pores, and sexual appeal enough to melt the staunchest woman’s core (which he promptly did). He had little in the way of challenges other than to convince the heroine that she loved him enough to call for a change in her attitude towards relationships. In other words, he was unreal, he had no character arc, and I was, literally, driven to tears of frustration. Worse, in the process of creating the perfect man, I committed the cardinal sin of treating my hero like a plot device. [His hideous magnificence remains unedited in my posts should anyone care to torture themselves]

WHY AVOID TOO-PERFECT CHARACTERS?

If the above examples of Mary Sue and Gary Stu do not convince, here’s how too-perfect protagonists may lead to bad fictions:

saintToo perfect to be human. Readers are everyday flawed people so a character who is free of flaws becomes unrealistic and one that is hard to relate to. Besides, it is very hard to sympathize with a holier-than-thou character in peril because they make us feel less than our best selves, so a reader would not feel as vested in seeing the character through to triumph.

No challenge too great. Too-perfect protagonists come with broad skillsets that make accomplishing goals and overcoming obstacles very easy for them and their one-dimensional quality boring for the readers. Plots are driven by conflicts and, with a Johnny-On-The-Spot, the tension never quite gets the opportunity to build up properly, which can cause the reader to disconnect too early.

Well, what’s there left to hope for? People want to read about ordinary characters persevere in extraordinary ways. A character in a similar or slightly better circumstances than the reader can motivate the reader’s aspirations towards life; conversely, a character who has all the assets one can desire to lead the perfect life might make a reader want to go to sleep and never wake up. After all, who can compete against Batman?

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Media: Me.Me.

To be fair to us, authors, it’s too tempting to write the too-perfect character. Even if we, ourselves, do not fit the mold of our ideal person [because, really, who does?], we wish to see it come alive somewhere – live [vicariously] a little. Writing heroes is also more comfortable than writing anti-heroes or villains because subconsciously we are worried how that might reflect on us as human beings. If we do remember to sand the edges by inserting a couple of character flaws, we are just as quick to make excuses for them. Should we write them real challenges, as creators, it is in our nature to mother them into victory.

At our worst self, we’re lazy and don’t want to sweat by putting in the level of thought and work hours necessary to clean up after a messy character: Stories are made of struggles; struggles need solving; someone’s gotta do it; why not Mary Sue? But every time we throw miracles in our character’s path, we are chiseling away at the compelling story we could be writing. As an outsider looking in, readers tend to discover conflicts sooner and notice opportunities for resolution faster than the characters themselves, which may prompt vexation in the reader but also cause them to hold on.

 

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Media: SpudComic

Think about it, how often have you groaned during the stairwell chase scene when the protagonist runs up the stairs to get away from the predator? It seems their gut instinct should be to run down and let gravity do most of the work as they look for the quickest exit from hell. Unless, of course, the character is Batman, in which case he wouldn’t be running or, if he did, he has probably already sent out a signal and the Batplane is waiting for him by the rooftop. As a kid, I had promised myself that I would learn to drive, ride a motorbike as well as a horse, and hotwire a car, just so if I ever needed to escape a villain, I would be all set. I haven’t yet learned to do any of that, am clinically overweight that I’m too lazy to remedy, and have low stamina that I blame on my intellectually-inclined personality. If my life was a novel and I a Girl Scout, I’d be the first to be eaten by a bear during camp. So… obviously not the protagonist of my own story.

 

HOW TO AVOID WRITING TOO-PERFECT CHARACTERS?

The good news is, if caught in time, an author can put a flawless character back in his box. It requires careful examination and takes a few nips and tucks to fix perfection but it can be done:

Give. Them. Flaws. Well, that’s obvious, but here are a few tips to remember as you do –

  • It’s best not to depend on flaws that are superficial or an in indirect praise such as a crooked nose (who’re you kidding; you know that’s sexy) or being a total klutz (wasn’t Meg Ryan absolutely adorable in French Kiss). The surest way to make the flaw compelling for the readers is to ensure that it is mired in the character’s past and has had time to fester to become a real problem.
  • The flaw shouldn’t be too blatant or exaggerated. Flaws lose credibility when demonstrated in absolute so they should never be dealt as such, unless the intention is to mock. Most people work in gray areas and so should the character’s flaws. Only sociopaths are completely sure of themselves all the time.
  • The flaw needs to be persistent until the character learns to reign it in, which should happen at approximately the same time as the plot reaches resolution. The last thing the story needs is the narrator telling the reader about the character’s flaw but when the time comes to show, the character works in an opposite manner.
  • A flaw that connects back to the central conflict in the plot is a great flaw. Flaws bear significance to the story when they cause the character to take a misstep that challenges their goals.

For that matter, stop fixating on their endowments. Yeah, yeah, he’s hot-stuff but must she swoon every time he walks into the room? The more words are spent describing the protagonist’s pros, the less time is used to show their cons.

Turn their strengths into a source of weakness. Shakespeare was a genius in romanticizing flaws. The same qualities that would establish a character as a hero in the beginning of a play would cause their tragic demise by the end. E.g. the bravery and determination that returns Macbeth victorious from war transforms into unchecked ambition where he kills the king he swore to serve before turning mad with guilt and paranoia, which eventually leads to a bloodbath under his tyrannical rule and then his death.

Make them do something you find truly objectionable. This may even be out of character where the one time they do something wrong, they get caught and then are left picking up the pieces for the rest of the story.

Put them back in the real world. The universe, even one existing in a fantasy, is governed by its own laws, which no character is above. As such, when the character defies the rules of this universe, there should be repercussions for the character to deal with. Their actions will have an effect on other characters just as they must be affected by it.

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Media: Giphy

Avoid deus ex machinas. Remember that one time when we were driving down the I-10 and were almost abducted by aliens but then a pterodactyl swooped in and ate the aliens before flying off into the sunset? Yeah, never happened. Not even on The X-Files. Sudden supreme forces that step in without preamble to save the day for the protagonist just make the plot ridiculous.

Pass some of your character’s skills to others. The protagonist can’t be an expert on everything or be everywhere at the same time – nor should you ask them of it. Instead, insert other characters into the story who are able to take over some of the protagonist’s responsibilities. Even Harry had Ron and Hermione; and Dumbledore and the Order of Phoenix and the DA and Snape and a bunch of other dead guys, etc.

What I’m trying to say is, in case you lost the plot in that circuitous ramble, unless you have decided that a Mary Sue/Gary Stu works for your story, they best be avoided. But, hey! as the original Mary Sue was written as a satire to parody the unrealistic heroines in some of the early Star Trek fanfictions, sometimes they can be the key ingredient to a successful story.

Whew! My obvious flaw is the inability to edit because this has gone on for long enough. But I would love to read about what are your thoughts on too-perfect characters.

Perhaps there is a Mary Sue that you feel spoiled a story for you or one that worked out really well? Or, like me, maybe you once wrote a Gary Stu who you eventually had to kill but who imparted you with great insight before his death?

 

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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Wednesday Reflections #34 – The Christmas Wife by Elizabeth Kelly

Via: Daily Prompt – Brilliant & Undulate

28028105Title     The Christmas Wife

Author     Elizabeth Kelly

Genre     Contemporary Romance | Holiday Romance | Christmas

Publisher      Elizabeth Kelly

Publication Date      November 29, 2015

Format      eBook

Setting     USA

ISBN     9781926483528

Synopsis: Deacon Stone, CEO extraordinaire of one of the world’s largest independent toy making companies, is in big trouble. His dear grandmother has finally lost her marbles and threatened to bequeath her controlling shares of the family business – the same toy company that Deacon worked his buns off for over the last decade to rescue from certain bankruptcy – to his greedy ill-equipped cousin if he doesn’t marry before Christmas. Not only does Deacon have an aversion to tying the proverbial noose around his neck but the real challenge is that he has less than a week to do the deed. When his best friend suggests he hires an escort to be his wife for the month, he brushes the idea off as incomprehensible. Then six-years-old Hattie, the daughter of his weekly maid Claire Brooks, glides into his living room, breaks a priceless figurine, and hands him the answer. As single mom Claire gets fired from the cleaning company for the damage caused, Deacon pays an apology visit to the Brookses’ dilapidated apartment to find them living in a state of destitution. Furthermore, he discovers their eviction notice, threatening to render the mother-daughter duo homeless, and suddenly a wife-for-hire doesn’t sound implausible. He realizes that Claire being a dedicated mom in dire straits would never reveal the duplicity of their marriage to anyone for fear of psychological repercussion on Hattie and promptly offers the family shelter in exchange of a marriage of convenience. He even sweetens the pot by offering Claire a hundred thousand dollars as long as they can maintain the charade until New Year’s Day when his grandmother would sign the shares over to him. For Claire, there really is no contest when given a choice between defending her dignity and securing a comfortable future for her daughter. And as long as she can put up a convincing act where everyone believes her marriage to Deacon is real but Hattie doesn’t get too emotionally drawn in, everyone can leave the marriage unscathed come new year. Except once married, the volatile sexual chemistry between Deacon and Claire begins to take precedence over a promise to remain detached and when Hattie and Deacon begin to form new bonds, fake family starts to look dangerously close to the real deal.

Experience: I rated this book 5* on Goodreads – not because I found it “amazing” (as the site’s rating system defines) or even because it was technically flawless. But because, having tried and failed to enjoy the works of a series of newly discovered [by me] authors in 2017, I was tearfully relieved to see that Elizabeth Kelly remembered to dot her i’s and cross her t’s before publishing the novel. And it seems this work was self-published too so bravo!

The book itself banks on an evergreen plot structure in the romance genre – a marriage of convenience – that it liberally peppers with lots of sensual scenes between the newly married couple and then honeys up with the beautiful formation of parent-child bond between a reluctant stepfather and a guileless child. It’s not an ingenious story arc but it guarantees success. I don’t think Kelly aimed to wow her readers with this but rather tried to provide them a homey romance to snuggle up with during the holidays – at least that is how it came across to me and, for once, I’m grateful for the salute to simplicity. Whereas recently I have read too many novels desperately gunning to discombobulate readers by adding an inordinate and unnecessary number of plot twists, The Christmas Wife chose to remain old-school and I found that refreshing. I fell in love with romance novels while reading the early cozy romances written by Sandra Brown and this was sort of a throwback to the sensations they aroused – The Hallmark Channel with a crackling fire smoking up the pages.

Another groan factor for me in 2017 was reading how comfortable so many authors are about treating their characters like plot devices, randomly called to action or left to collect dust as the scene of the moment requires. As though everyone but the main characters is afterthoughts. I have read an actual scene where the hero and heroine – secretly in love with each other – are arguing over something absolutely mundane that the heroine’s roommate is helping to moderate, when because the heroine ingenuously trips and the hero gallantly catches her, they become wholly engrossed in discovering adorable freckles on one’s nose and golden flecks in the other’s eyes, having a conversation that would consume minimum ten minutes in real life while the roommate is floating in the background like a ghost stuck in time without any occupation or even objection to being ignored. While the interaction between the hero-heroine was certainly titillating, the roles of the other characters felt insignificant and implausible. This actually was approved by a notable publishing house and then went on to becoming a YA bestseller. And no, the book didn’t get better after that; rest of it was just as inane.

In a happy contrast, Hattie received a salient role in this novel, despite being a child character in an adult romance. Usually, one would find a novel featuring a single mom/dad using the kid(s) to simply cutesy up the plot – like a pet. They may be part of the conflict or the charm but mostly inactive other than when required to either foil or foster the romantic plot. Not Hattie. She got as much downtime with Deacon as her mom and actively contributed to selling the beauty of “fam-dom” to the resolutely-single hero. And not only did she build bonds with the stepdad but also charmed a shrewd grandmother and formed an alliance with a member of the opposition (the son of that inept cousin trying to weasel away Deacon’s company). This novel was not about only the romantic characters. Kelly did not forget the little people – or rather, the little people had large parts to play.

Meanwhile, the adults behaved like adults and not hapless props acted upon for the sake and break of the romance. Here, the hero and heroine made informed decisions unlike a lot of recent romances where the main characters take rash decisions in the beginning of the novel and for the rest, are juggling the pieces of their lives while they choose to remain blind to the changing dynamics in the said romance or become easily misled due process of salvaging their egos. Conflicts invariably equal to secrets and miscommunications. Again, Kelly broke the mold when neither Deacon nor Claire is relegated to such star-crossed roles. Throughout the novel, both characters had an active hand in how their marriage would be upheld, in its catch or release, whether tightening the hold over their congealing relationship or letting go. They weighed their options as well their constraints before entering the marriage, they chose to become sexually involved letting the other know their individual limits in the relationship, and, when necessary, they each backed off and allowed the other enough space to get their bearings sorted. I felt it was their understanding of each other’s wants that made the ebbs and flows of tension so well-paced and believable. Despite the odds that brought them together and despite the fact that they entered a fake marriage, they always remain a truthful ally to one another. In this lie, they are a unit and that makes each partner a strong support system for the other – in a way, a much healthier foundation for marriage. And it was a relief that the tension was not dependent on yet another incident of “forgot to pass the message” or “didn’t reach the venue quickly enough to stop the villain from gaining center-stage”.

The only objection I had to the novel, though, was that there was no concrete foundation to build the romantic arc upon. What I mean is, while there was oodles of lust between our romantic couple and all, there was no other reason for one individual to fall in love with the other individual. Perhaps I felt this way because there was no real character development in either Deacon or Claire but only the outlook of the “ideal family” they created and fell into character with. Throughout the novel, the most we see of each character as individuals is that one is a hardworking bloke while the other a dedicated mom but everything else they undergo is purely circumstantial. Thrown in such close quarters, any set of individuals would form these bonds, an adult unless heartless would melt towards a precocious child, a married couple with the opportunity and license to initiate a sexual relationship may take advantage of their conjugal rights. And in the process, these people may develop soft corners for each other but it seemed that it could be any rich rescuer or any mother-daughter act that would have done the job. I think it was here, in the enriching of the characters, where simplicity took away rather than added to the novel. But then again, since the novel was no race to becoming the next great American romance, this deficiency is easily overlooked.

Recommendation: If you’re ever in need of an uncomplicated and soothing romance with a little heat, look no further. And you know as well as I that Christmas romances are good to read all year round.

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WRITING CHRONICLE #32: of recovery and waste

Via: Daily Prompt – Silent & Bliss

So I have returned – my health rallied and my mind itching to get things moving. Though my doctor has informed me that I will need a second [precautionary] surgery to fully eliminate any danger, it will be some time before she again puts me under the scalpel – or scoop, in my case.

Gruesome.

Anyway, I realized something about my author self in this past month of doing little more than lying in bed. I’m never more desirous to work on my novel as when I am experiencing a physical or scheduling constraint. It’s just as when I was slaving away like a house-elf for the corporate sovereigns. Then, too, I was desperate for the day when I would finally break free of my executive commitments and start writing the stories I am meant to write.

The day after my farewell at the office, I sat down at my laptop and wrote for nearly seven hours in one stretch. That first day, I had become unaware of any physical want that may draw me away from my creation; the consciousness of hunger, bladder pressure, or optical stress lay dormant before the high of being able to write without accountability to anything but the words adding pages to my manuscript. I ended up drafting the second half of my first [complete] novel in just over three months. Ecstasy!

That raw energy petered off all too quickly. Not that it bruised my ego at the time, as I fell back on the comfort of the new diversions that came my way. First, it was the online fiction writing course I did at the beginning of this year, which took eight weeks to complete. The exercise spurred me into writing a series of random flash fictions and short stories. By the time that was over, I was blogging on a daily basis. The challenge of responding to the WP Daily Prompt was so attractive and exhaustive that I allowed it to become an excuse to not begin editing my novel – after all, editing isn’t as much fun as drafting.

Then there was the Amazon writing contest, which at least got me to draft, edit, and publish my first [sellable] novella. A major milestone. And because I managed to accomplish the feat in less than a month, I felt motivated to dedicate more of my time and effort to writing fiction and consciously reduced blogging to twice a week. Sad to say, I didn’t devote myself to the endeavor nearly as much as I should have.

The shameful truth is I became lazy and complaisant. There’s plenty of time, I thought. After all, if I can produce and amend over 37,000 words for publication in less than 30 days, how long can it take to revise one 75,471-word draft? All I need to do is give two months to the task; maybe even less since the chief story was already written down. Pffft! Piece of cake! I got this!

And then this surgery. BOOM! Suddenly, my mind was flowing with scenes and prose, plots and characters for a new novel. Suddenly, I knew exactly which chapters I needed to slash from my first novel and what I should write to replace them in order to arrange the arcs of the story and characters into one cohesive piece. Yet, there I was, having to hold back the reins because I couldn’t even so much as sit up on my ass as type a page on my laptop.

Oh! How I writhed. I could take pills to allay the sting of my wound but there wasn’t any respite from the slow agony of the words blooming in my head, awaiting harvest. I was on edge with the heavy knowledge that these ideas could slip away just as quickly as they surfaced if I didn’t document them fast enough. This galvanizing commotion could quell at any moment. It made me irritable.

But, still, I misdirected the blame.

Arrogantly, I assumed that my problem was the inability to convert all this creative verve into anything productive. That it should return at such an inopportune time. If it weren’t for this stupid surgery, I could be listening to the symphonic clacking of the keys on my laptop, basking in the pride of writing fiction once more. The fault lay in my illness.

The fault did lay in my illness but the true nature of that illness dawned on me only when I went for a follow-up at the hospital. “Another surgery in a few months’ time.” No sooner did I realize that there will be another episode of lengthy convalescence in my near future when I wouldn’t be able to write that I finally came to term with the real threat. That I had been whiling away not-writing fiction for many months before the surgery took place. That before the advent of this renewed desperation to work on my novels, I had so easily settled into recuperative sluggishness because it was no different from the sedentary state I was already living. The recovery period is a mere month or so; what was I doing with my time when I was healthy?

I wasn’t having a mortality crisis but neither was six weeks a death sentence. Instead of grinding teeth over my temporary infirmity, I should be frowning upon my enduring wastefulness. Because despite my confidence in being able to write and publish a novella in under a month when I put myself to the task, the truth was that I wasn’t putting myself to the task. So I haven’t got this at all. I lacked industry, I lacked commitment.

Because speaking of that mortality crisis I wasn’t having, six weeks could have been a death sentence. It would have been a sorry end if I didn’t have at least one or six bestsellers to my name when the time came. And how mortifying when all those people who called me foolish for giving up a flourishing career to build castles in the cloud were proven correct. How would I even show my face to them then? Closed casket for me!

You know, we, writers, often take procrastination as part and parcel of the profession. We console ourselves with the idea that idleness does not really exist for us because we are always observing, formulating. A more stirring precept to hold fast to would be that we are slowly dying. There is just no time to waste.

So? Write.

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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 #30: plots and the way they move

Via: Daily Prompt – Gratitude

Plot – one of the seven pillars (others being character, conflict, setting, theme, POV, and style) of fiction. Though harboring deceptively similar traits, it should be viewed as different from the story. However, when I first picked up the craft of fiction writing, I could not find the plot in my stories for the life of me. It was there, but I didn’t see what it was. How was it any different from the story itself? Until I came across the following pearls of wisdom from one of the most masterful storytellers of our history:

 

Let us define plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: ‘The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.’ This is a plot with a mystery in it…”

~ E. M. Forster

The above words of Forsters helped me put things in perspective and review my work, correct errors in my technique, and raise the value of the stories I was writing. Thankfully, not too late in my writing journey to inflict any irreparable damage to my style.

As the years wore on, I came across other educational literature, both online and within books, that helped me identify plots in stories written by others as well as formulate plots of my own. A safe bet for finding them is to look for changes that move circumstances in the story from point A to point B. Again, it requires looking for the causality that will achieve the desired resolution in the conflict introduced:

A tangible event that forces change upon the characters.

E.g. After the death of an all-knowing headmaster, a warrior-student is forced to set out on a journey with his best friends-cum-comrades to discover and destroy the objects that tether an evil wizard’s soul to Earth in order to overcome his reign once and for all. (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling)

A decision that changes a character’s circumstances.

E.g. A father decides to leave his post as a clergyman and removes his family to an industrial town where the daughter has to navigate the society of a new breed of working class and masters whose life force is the dignity earned through hard work, as well as butt heads with a proud but honest manufacturer whose heroics is not always apparent. (North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell)

Change in the relationship dynamics between characters.

E.g. A self-centered social princess who enjoys meddling in the lives of her peers out of a misguided perception that “she knows best” is only ever called out by her politically correct older step-brother but eventually realizes she enjoys his overbearing guidance and admires his integrity but is no longer confident that she is worthy of his attention. (Clueless by Amy Heckerling)

Internal change in a character.

E.g. A young woman prides herself on the accuracy of her study of characters of those around her, becomes prejudiced against an aristocratic man of natural proud bearings after being inadvertently slighted by him and hearing accusations of his misconduct against another man but eventually discovers that she allowed herself to be thoroughly misled and proceeds to witness his generosity towards those he cares for. (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen)

knowing myself

Change in reader’s perspective of the situation.

E.g. A divorced woman, who makes multiple errors in judgment due to her incessant state of inebriation, is obsessed with her ex-husband’s budding new family and tries to recover her life but begins to piece together a sinister past through wild flashbacks that foreshadow that the guilt might not be hers alone. (The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins)

Character coming to the realization that there will not be any change at all.

E.g. A recluse author, under the pressure of trying to come up with a novel that will rival the success of his first, begins to write a female character who likes his dog and whom he starts to fall in love with, bringing her to life and later decides to allow her freedom of will, only to realize that once free, the character is no longer satisfied with her life with him alone, and feels morally compelled to set her free from his domain. (Ruby Sparks by Zoe Kazan)

Such classic plotlines are the fail-safes of writing fictions. Of course, one cannot simply rely on them to succeed. No, success is achieved by adding originality to these storylines in a way that lifts the characters off the pages – and that is entirely up to the author’s creativity. And even more complicated than deciding on the “causality” to induce the story arc is deciding how the plot will progress to make the story plausible.

So once you have decided how you will add the plot to your story, how do you move it forward? There are many methods of plotting you can use, and here are some approaches to get you started:

Traditional Approach – Ideal for planners, this is the method you use to first break down the entire story into chapters, then briefly summarize what happens in them as well as the contribution to the story arc that each makes.

Synopsis – Similar to the Traditional Method, the Synopsis is ideal for planners but who wish to allow themselves more creative room in writing individual scenes to build on the general plot as they progress. Here, the writer also outlines the entire story but without breaking it down chapter-by-chapter or scene-by-scene. The ending is often loosely introduced in the synopsis or may be left blank. The synopsis is a good practice for later if the author wishes to gain representation in traditional publishing.

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Image: Wikimedia

Freytag’s Pyramid – Though the 5-act dramatic structure was almost abandoned in the mid-nineteenth century, German playwright Gustav Freytag not only brought it back into use but streamlined this outlining method by choicely breaking down the course of plot into Exposition (background information on the major elements introduced in the fiction), Rising Action (introduction and build-up of the conflict), Climax (turning point where conflict is at its most volatile), Falling Action (where conflict unravels and the final suspense/doubts are exposed), and Denouement (where the story’s loose ends are drawn together).

Three-Act Structure – This simplifies the 5-act structure by diving the plot into three segments as the name suggests and putting specific elements in each, which is left up to the author to decide on. Most commonly, the three-act structure is broken down into the introduction plus rise of conflict, climax, and resolution. This structure is becoming more popular as it is often now advised to introduce the inciting incident in the novel as early (often even scene one) into the story as possible to capture the audience from the get-go.

Hero’s Journey – This method engenders the three-act structure by specifically dividing the plot to induce the character arc for the MC. In the first act, the hero receives but refuses a call to action, thus showing his/her reluctance to get involved; in the second act, a series of trials are forced upon the hero that may test his/her physical prowess as well as intelligence, emotional, and ethical quotient; and, in the final act, the hero triumphs over the antagonist.

The Snowflake Method – Introduced by Randy Ingermanson, this method does not attempt to systematically outline the plot but rather starts with writing a one-sentence summary or loglines that defines and entices the storyline, then picks out specific elements in the story such as characters, conflicts, epiphanies, goals, etc., lists them out by rote, and adds details to them which will mechanize plot progress. This method is ideal for people who prefer discovering their way through the plot as much as the reader.

Draft Zero – Finally, the food of the pantsers and who think plots should remain mysteries until they are well on their way through the first draft [for creative freedom, of course]. The writer focuses on speed as they write a mock draft, allowing plenty of gaps in scenes to be filled in later. The writer courses through the story too quickly to allow for anything such as fatigue or “editing impulses” to set them back or keep them from reaching completion.

Of course, authors are welcome to combine any of these methods to ensure optimal output from themselves. After completing the draft of my first novel and realizing how my plot was all over the place, making my MC’s character arc plausible but not achieved via the right course, I took to employing a combination of Traditional Method and Draft Zero – it saves me a lot of time later that would be otherwise spent filling in plot holes.

What are your plotting processes?

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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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