Tuesday, December 28, 2010

From Flat to Round

The talking of characters being flat and round had always baffled me, and truth be told, it still does to an extent.
But I learned something important from EM Forster’s book, Aspects of the Novel, there is one line that sums this up pretty well :
“A round character must be able to surprise us convincingly.”
There are two important parts in this sentence. The character should surprise us, as well as the surprise being done convincingly. You can’t try to make a character round by letting them surprise us with something that they have no motivation or reasoning to do. If your reader can’t believe that your character would do something like that, then your characters had not succeeded in becoming round. EM Forster calls these characters flat characters pretending to be round.
Now the question is this. How exactly to we build up our readers into believing the surprise when it comes?
Every event that a character experiences can change him. Subtle changes, or major changes. If you can somehow create a series of events that would change him in such a way that it is not unconvincing when the character surprises, then you have succeeded.
But when you think about it, isn’t that the wrong way around? Shouldn’t you follow your character and bombard him with events and watch as it changes him? Then find him later surprising you with something? Then you think back and find that all the events had led up to this one decision? That all the events had changed your character in such a way that this one decision is convincing?
I would think so.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The First Line of Defence

Coming up with a title was mostly just a passing thought for me in the past, but I’ve come to realise that the title is probably one of the most important aspects of a novel. It’s the first thing prospective readers see is your book’s title.
One might say that the hook in chapter one is important, but if the title doesn’t interest our prospective reader, he/she won’t even make it to your hook. For this reason, one should put effort into coming up with a good name.
First off, you don’t need the perfect name from the beginning. Just think up one as you start, but be sure to think on your title as the book progresses. The best time to come up with a name is probably during or after the revision process.
Next, I’ve seen many places that suggests name lengths for your title. Such as single word, two syllable titles work the best and so on. As far as I’ve seen, that is not necessarily the case. Though, this can’t simply be discarded. People these days like words to be short and to the point. Get the message across quickly. However, think of the others, like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Pretty long names, but both bestsellers as far as I know.
Thirdly, pretty obviously, avoid names of books that are well known. Although book names can’t be copyrighted, there will be a lot of confusion and even some wrong assumptions. Best plan, search your possible name on Amazon and see if you get any hits. Try to make your title unique.
Generally speaking, it seems that the title should be a small phrase or sentence (keep it short) that sums up your blurb, carries your theme or speaks of a character or an event that is crucial to the story. Pretty hard.
Titles are the bait of writing. It’s a whole process to get someone to read your book, but the title (and the cover art even) is the first step. If a title catches one’s attention, one reads the blurb. If the blurb sounds interesting, one might read the first lines. If the hook is interesting, the book reading process will begin. Then every chapter has to keep hooking and pulling the reader through the story until it is done.
After that, the cycle begins again at the title.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The New Idea

Now this is a problem I’m very familiar with. I’m busy with a story, writing it down or rewriting it. Then it hit me. The new idea.
It sounds so good when you think of it, you just want to drop your current project and go on with the new one. But as I’ve found, history repeats itself, and you’ll probably get another idea by the time you’re well into your first new idea. What to do?
Many people says that the solution is to combine ideas. Take the idea of your one story and combine it with your current story. Hm. That could end oddly, but it is a consideration. Another publicly acceptable solution seems to be that you should write down the spark of the idea and go on with your original, and then when you’re done, come back and start with your new idea.
Sounds better.
However, there are some other people that would suggest that you start with the new story alongside your old one. Write both. I think it was Holly Lisle that said that if you’re busy with one story and it’s going slowly, perhaps the very thing you need is to start with a new project. It will not only be nice to start anew, but also help your other project along. Of course you’ll spend less time with the new project, so that you can at least finish the first.
I must say that I like the last solution. Now obviously you cannot start every new idea you think of as you go. That could end with ten different stories at the end of the day.
My solution is to write down all the ideas you’re getting, no matter what you’re busy with at the time. And if you feel particularly excited over one of them, by all means, start with it on a small scale, slipping it into your schedule at open spaces. When you’re a full time writer, you could write the week on the main project and the weekend you can work on your other one. Sort of a hobby rather than a work? To take the work out of the work.
That’s how I’d do it. What about you?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sweating the Details

When it comes to the details, should we worry or not?
If you have a scene in your novel where your villain is putting together a nuclear bomb, do you need to know the different types and quantities of the materials needed? Do you need to list them?
It’s a tricky subject, actually. Originally, my approach was this : I research the subject for hours on end, trying to get the correct information that my story is completely scientifically correct. Sometimes, I couldn’t find the answer and then I simply stopped until I found a reasonable solution.
This matter is a double-edged sword (where does that phrase come from anyway? Who ever cut themselves with a sword because it was double-edged?) that can lead both ways. By listing details and gathering specifics, your scene can come across as compelling and interesting as well as realistic. However, that’s not always the case. Sometimes it comes across as boring and slow, much the same way as an overexposure to a clump of history does.
I’m not saying that you should skip details and make all your scenes vague. All I’m saying is that I found many of my scenes extremely slow and boring when I read them again, because of the over abundance of information.
Then of course, there’s the other problem. What if you don’t know the information and can’t get a hold of it? Let’s take the example I gave above. Your villain is building a nuclear bomb. You’re sure to get a visit from the FBI if you start asking people what you would need to make an a-bomb. In cases like that, I’d say the best idea is to guess. Sure, some nuclear physicist can email you, reprimanding you on the vast amount of incorrect steps, but the majority of people won’t know the difference. I guess the only thing you can do is to make sure it sounds realistic. But that’s a discussion for another day.
The important part is that you should spend a reasonable time to research the problem, but if seems impossible to get the information, just do some guesswork and you'll see that it isn't so bad.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Revision Process

When it comes to writing a novel, most people don’t realise the process. They start their novel and write a bit every now and then, hoping for it to become the next best seller. After years and years, they finally have their manuscript and they send it to a publisher and the query is ignored.
Why? Because they left the most important part out. Revision. Now I’m not saying there is no way a novel can be published without revision, but rather that the chance is so minuscule that it doesn’t matter. Only if you are a master writer who has an enormous talent for writing.
Revising a manuscript is where the real work begins. You start off with a story in your head, and you write the first draft. You should put down the story as quickly as possible and not worry about things that happen differently than you expected. After you’re done, you can go back and fix the things you want.
I always used to go back and fix continuity errors in my draft stage, and change things at the beginning when I rethink a character later on. This time around though, I decided to stick with the advice everyone gives : Don’t make any changes on what you’ve already written. Just write down the story. Now my base plot changed quite a bit as I got to know my characters better and the opening scene now seems somewhat lacking. But I only worry about this after the draft.
In the beginning of the revision process, I’ll read through my manuscript like a book, only I’ll make some notes along the way. Now keep in mind that the notes consists of changes in the story, characters, or plot. Or the changing of scenes. Addition or deletion and characters or scenes. That is what I’ve been busy with so far.
But now that I gave it some thought, it seems that I might be doing things the wrong way again. It’s like this. You start off with the big things. The main plot. The main character. The entire story as a whole. Where does everything fit in. Then you go ahead and edit that until you’re happy. After that, you go one level lower. You start at the main story and work your way down to grammar and word choices. If you change the small things first, it might be for naught if you cut the scene and change a paragraph.
For now, I’m not sure what exactly falls into each category, or which elements are above which others, but I’ll work on that and see what to change as I revise my manuscript.
The most important part to remember about revision is that it is the most crucial part of your process. It is what determines your success. In the words of someone else (can’t recall who), “Good writing is good rewriting.”

Thursday, December 9, 2010

World Book Night

Recently, I’ve been hearing about this World Book Night from various places.
What is it? Well, it seems that on 5 March 2011, 1 million books will be given away to someone who would enjoy it as well. It seems anyone can give away a book they want someone else to read. Unfortunately, there is a catch :
The book you’re giving away must be on the list of 25 novels already selected.
I must say, it would be great to give a book you enjoyed thoroughly and loved to every inch to someone who would enjoy it as much as you did. However, there is no guarantee that the person who receives it would even enjoy it. In fact, I’m not sure that anyone would know who got what. I couldn’t glean any information as to how the giving away part works from the site, http://www.worldbooknight.org
Another problem that quells me is this.
You want to give away your copy of the legendary Lord of the Rings, so that someone else would also be able to travel the journey that you travelled, to experience what you experienced? Oh, it’s not on the list? Sorry, we can’t accept that one.
All right, you say, what about my copy of New York Times bestseller, The Sword of Shannara, the first fantasy paperback to ever appear on the list?
Let me check... Nope. Not on here.
In fact, the only speculative fiction that appears on the list are Northern Lights and Cloud Atlas. To tell you the truth, the only book I even recognise is Life of Pi by Yann Martel. But maybe that’s just me.
In any case, this event is only in the UK and Ireland. Though, wouldn’t it be great if the world could hold such an event? That books can be passed to the next generation and enjoyed again? It might be a bit chaotic if everyone can choose their own book to give, but hey, they can at least try, right?
Maybe we can hold our own book night every 5th of March. Give a book you enjoyed to someone you know would enjoy reading it as well. There’s nothing like sharing the awesomeness of fiction.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Inspiration and Perspiration

We’ve all heard the quote from Thomas Edison, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”
Is it true for writers as well? Many people have said many things about this matter. What does a writer need to think of stories? Should he sit and look out the window until an idea pops into his head? Or should he constantly be busy with plotting out ideas and writing things down?
I think it’s a little bit of both. Maybe a fifty fifty split. If you let ideas spin through you mind, you’ll eventually find something you like. From that point on, it’s work. You have to consciously pursue the subject and develop the inkling of the idea into a story. Maybe some people can start writing a story with just that inkling, but I’ve found that I have to plot out some things. Mostly, they don’t stay the way they started, but I plotted them out nonetheless.
It’s much easier to win a race if you know where the finish line is. If you just run along, hoping to spot the chequered banner, you’re probably not going to finish any time soon. Your story will be a mass of unrelated events. Well, mine would be anyway.
However, the biggest problem still remains. How do you get an inkling of an idea into your head? How do you speed up your inspiration? You can’t just stare out of a window for a few days until you have something.
Jack London once said, “You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” You have to hunt for inspiration.
You scrutinise every object, every event that passes you by on a daily basis. Ask yourself how that object could be different. What would happen if so and so would happen to that object? How would this event be different if so and so happened?
Letting your imagination run wild is a great tool for inspiration.
Finally, I’ll leave you with a quote from a great writer.

Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.” - Orson Scott Card

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Opening Gambit

Beginnings are always a problem. I’ve heard many people say that it’s easy to begin, but hard to continue, but that is not necessarily true. If you think about it logically, it should be easy to begin something.
However, when we look at this from a writer’s point of view, beginning is a problem, because it is so easy to do.
I think it was Orson Scott Card who said that the beginning is what makes a story. A good beginning makes a good story and vice versa. Where to begin, when to begin, who to begin with? Choosing the correct viewpoint can make a great difference in how readers see your characters.
When you start a story too rashly, without thinking of how the beginning will impact your story, you could have quite a mess on your hands. Since the beginning shapes the whole story (events that follow on the beginning, working from it and forming from it, especially if you’re a pantser), you will often have to rewrite large amounts of prose if you want to fix it.
Thus, when you start, it is a delicate process where you should have a good idea where you want your story to go. Think carefully. That is the point. The beginning is what makes the end. Even when you write with only a vague idea in mind, you should have some sort of idea where your story will lead. Think of what beginning would complement or enhance your ending. What beginning would most naturally lead to your ending.
When you’ve gotten an answer from that, you can begin with ease.

For me, this is a new beginning. I’ve thought long and hard on it, and now the start is in my hands. I hope to be a published writer someday and I will be working to feed myself until then. South Africa is where I live. It’s not really the central hub of creative thinking, but I manage anyway. I’m still studying for a creative writing degree, so I’m mostly broke or in debt, or both. Luckily, I get free lodging at this point, but then again, who knows how long that will hold.
From this point on, I’ll try to make informative posts in regard to writing. Things I learn or just musings about the writing life or techniques. I hope not to bore anyone to death and hopefully this will be an interesting place to visit.

Feel free to leave comments or email me at jakehenegan (at) gmail (dot) com.