Monday, January 31, 2011

May I have a Glass of Water?

A little while back, I learned that there is an important concept in fiction that I had not grasped. I don’t know if I understand it now, but at least I know that I am aware.
If a character does not have motivation, your story will be without direction and even without believability. All your characters must want something. The place where I learned this referred me to Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules For Writing Fiction. Go look it up if you will, it’s good stuff.
But anyway, Vonnegut’s third rule is this:
Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
Why is your hero running around, trying to save the world? Because he wants a safe place to live. Why is the heroine running from the vampires? Because she wants to live.
Motivation will make your characters come to life. When they want something, it will drive them to do things you hadn’t even thought of. It will also give you something to aim at. A character will aim to reach what he or she wants, and do pretty much anything to get there.
However, there will be things that your character does not want. This will cause them to run away from whatever they don’t want, perhaps altering a straight course to the thing they want.
When you put those two together, you have an ending. I think it was Holly Lisle who said that in most stories, the hero must overcome that which he fears (or does not want) to get to that which he does want (his goal).
Obviously, this does not apply for every story, but it is generally applicable in some or other way.
Another important factor of this rule of Vonnegut is the word every. Not just the main characters should have wants. The villain should definitely want something, but also the secondary and minor characters. It’s not a problem if you have a flat shopkeeper that appears once in your story, but every character that has anything to do with the progression of the story should want something.
In the end, it is all about motivation. If you want something, it will drive you to action. Action leads to conflict (especially if your character is avoiding something) and conflict makes stories. Don’t just let things happen to your hero and then he just gets dragged along. Give him something to aim for, and he will come alive before your eyes.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Coming to Your World

I’ve developed from over-describing to under-describing to what I believe is close to the correct amount of describing. I discussed the character descriptions a few posts back. This time I’ll look at the environment.
How much is too much? When your sword-wielding hero comes over the hill and sees the city before him, do you need to describe every detail that is possible to see from his viewpoint? Not really.
However, the opposite also doesn’t help much. I’ve done that many times. My hero enters a ominous building, but my lack of description throws the whole atmosphere off. It is important to let the readers know what the world your hero walk around in looks like.
By using as many senses as you can put in, (especially sight, hearing and smell) you can create an atmosphere. It is perhaps through this part that one can truly immerse the reader.
Someone (I can’t remember where I read it) said that rather than writing about the emotion that a character experiences, write it so that the reader will experience that emotion. I think this can apply to atmosphere as well. By displaying the things that stand out to your character (the leaky pipe, the drip of water in the distance, the slimy wall and the rancid smell) your reader will experience the location that you chose the same way as the character, or at least have more of a feeling of actually being there. The more senses you can bring into account, the better the experience will be.
Now, even the Show vs Tell rule can be explained and/or used here. When you let your hero enter an area, instead of just saying ‘the hero entered an unpleasant-looking sewage pipe, filled with a feet high level of water’, you show the reader the pipe and make them make their own decisions about whether it is unpleasant or not. The reactions that the character makes will show them how he reacts. For example, ‘The hero entered the pipe. He strained to see in the darkness as he stepped forward, right into water. He lost his balance on the slippery ground and grabbed for the wall. After regaining his balance, he made a face as he pulled his hand from the slimy wall.’ Something like that. It gives the reader more of an idea of where the hero is at and what the atmosphere is like.
Describing the environment is an important part of writing, especially in made up worlds. It is the tool you use to pull your reader into the world with your hero, instead of letting them stand outside and look down onto the world that your characters inhabit.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Publishing Game

Let me begin by mentioning that I’ve never published anything, nor even attempted to. But from my research and speculation, there is quite a few things that I have come to know of the publishing game. I will share it.
Let’s say you have your final manuscript ready. There are four things you can do from this point on.
- Number one, you can just decide not to publish it. You’ve read it again and you feel like it is lacking something. So you decide to rewrite it. This is a good way to pick in the right circumstances. Having a final manuscript that you don’t like isn’t the first step you want when getting ready to publish. However, simply giving up every time you finish because of the fear of rejection will get you absolutely nowhere. Your story will never be perfect. There, I said it.
There will always be something that can be better. Don’t let this get you down, though. If you’ve done everything possible to make this the best manuscript that you can make, then it’s ready. Of course, if you’re two years old and your manuscript is a series of scribbles, then your best just won’t be good enough. Which brings me to the next point.
- Self-publishing. This is a very delicate road to step onto. To self-publish is to publish the book just as you want it. But remember what I said. If your best isn’t good enough, what will happen when you are the only critic to your work? In general, I’d never self-publish. People usually resort to self-publishing after getting several rejection letters. But rather than seeing it in a negative way, see that the manuscript needs more work. Rewrite it. That’s what I would do.
However, don’t throw self-publishing out the window immediately. With the editing services that are available these days, you can still refine your novel before publishing it. Or maybe you’re just a genius. Either way, self-publishing might still be right for you. Christopher Paolini, the author of Eragon, self-published his first novel. It didn’t really take off, but then it eventually reached the eyes of a publisher and Paolini landed a contract. Self-publishing can be a great way for new authors to get noticed.
But my mind still sees it as this: Self-publishing allows you to skip the judging of other people phase of the novel. And since the whole business has to do with getting people to like your book...
Plus, you have to pay all the costs involved. Not so great.
- Lastly, you can send your manuscript to a publisher or an agent. Now, many authors deal directly with the publishing houses, but personally, I don’t like it. I’m not in tune with the publishing laws and fine script. I’m not saying that an author shouldn’t read up about these things, but you didn’t study for it.
Getting an agent means that you can trust that the publisher works with someone who knows what they’re talking about. Agents do this for a living, so it seems like a great idea. Plus, they get paid out of your check (a certain percentage), so they’ll do whatever they can to get you as much money as possible.
One tip that I’ve learned though, never pay a reading fee.

It doesn’t matter which way you go, really. The important thing is that you choose the route that fits with you. Some people might not want to have the extra expense of an agent. Some people may have the talent and skill to self-publish with only the help of a few external editors. It all depends on you in the end.
As for me, I’ll stick with an agent if I ever get that far.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Starting in the Midst of Events

An age old piece of writing advice is what they call “In Medias Res”, Latin for “In the Midst of Events”.
Yesterday, I saw some quotes from one of my favourite authors, and he said that to start in medias res is old advice that isn’t applicable in modern times and never was in older times either. Now this confused me somewhat, but then I thought of what it could have meant. So here’s my view of it.
If you want to start in the middle of events, do you start with a car chase? With a gun fight? With blood flying around? Not necessarily. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that you cannot put your characters in difficult positions at the start of the book, without your reader knowing him. If the reader doesn’t care about the character, then all the suspense and feelings of danger will be lost on your reader and he or she might even grow bored with it. Most people need to place things within context, so an action scene from the start might not be the best approach.
On the other hand, starting with family history or the story of the country your character is living in is the other side of this and is sure to put your reader asleep before long. So if you want to write a book that readers will read if they need help falling asleep, start with long back story.
So the question remains. Is in medias res bad writing advice? As to my interpretation, no. Starting in the midst of events is exactly what you should do. Unless you’re writing Rambo Returns, there will be some part in your pov character that does not involve danger or suspense. In the scene, you introduce your character, but not with a mirror, please. You show the readers a part of his life. The interactions with other people (or lack thereof) will do well to characterise your hero, and make the reader care about what happens to him.
The part you’ll show will be the life that will be interrupted or changed by the first plot point in your story.
Let’s say your story goes like this:
John is an mathematician that is crazy about numbers and spends his days solving problems in a small room. But one day, a group of terrorists grab him and force him to help develop some kind of formula that will bring the world to its knees.
You will not start this story a minute before John is kidnapped, but rather a day or two. You start with him working on his problems and then show how he ignores all human contact and only eats if someone brings the food to him. You show characters that care about him and characters he cares about, but does not realise. Then, after you’ve set up this character, the readers know enough about John to care about what happens to him.
The part before the first plot point shouldn’t be too long, or the story might become drab, but it should be long enough to convey information about him to the reader and to show the reader why they should care that he is kidnapped.
So, is in medias res good writing advice? Yes. As long as you remember what it means.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall... me what I look like so I can monotonously relate my physical appearance to the readers?
Does that sound familiar?
I have seen so many articles and rants about this thing, so I’m not going to write about that per say. What I do want to do, however, is look over character descriptions.
Do you like to describe your characters at the first glance? A long winded paragraph over every detail of the character’s hair, face and clothing? Or a brief description before continuing?
A long time ago, I used to bombard my scenes with long character descriptions, filled with fancy words and flowing observations. At least there was never a mirror involved. However, at some point, I read that you should not include such long paragraphs about their appearance, so I left most of out. I mentioned a quick hair colour in a passing sentence, or an eye colour as the character looked at something. Then that too, seemed too much, and my descriptions just faded away, until I almost never physically described the characters.
But I recently realised that this is not necessarily a good thing. Too much description is bad. But perhaps there is merit in the physical appearance.
Some people say that it does not matter what your characters look like, (except in some rare circumstances) so why share the information? However, that’s not necessarily true. Appearance often characterises people, either in the eyes of the beholder, or it holds a key to the image that the said character has of him or herself.
When you could say, “John walked in, his eyes darting over the room”, rather say, “John walked slightly slouched, dark clothes wrapped around his wide frame, and his shaded eyes darting over the room.”
Using the first sentence, you know close to nothing of this person, save that he is suspicious or nervous.
But by explaining how he looks (even if it is an exaggeration) will immediately convey the opinion that the beholder has of the character. It also shows you something about a character and give you the feel for this character. A extrovert joker would not be wearing dark clothes and looking around suspiciously. People often characterise themselves by what they look like.
Let’s say you rewrite the above like this, “John walked with a slouch. He wore a dark blue shirt over black pants. A dark green jacket covered his upper body while his black hair cast a shadow over his grey eyes that flitted over the room.”
This is not good at all. The fact that John wears a dark blue shirt and black pants does not help you in any way. “Dark clothes” gives you more. The specific colour is not the point of interest. Dark clothes are preferred by certain types of people.
To go even further, the appearance of the character can create an illusion of who the character really is in the eyes of the reader. Then the truth is gradually or explosively revealed, making a fuller, more pleasantly surprising character.
For most purposes, appearance does not matter, but it can certainly create a better image of who someone is, and how that someone conveys himself to the world. Ergo, what mask he wears.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Ideas That are Ripe for the Picking

I mentioned in a previous post about inspiration that you can find story ideas everywhere. Now in the last week or so, I’ve had to come up with quite a few different ideas for flash fiction, and I found it pretty difficult to get ideas.
But I tried and tried, looking for and trying out different methods.
One that worked fairly well was a random word generator. (I used the one on this site) You start off with a word. Then you expand.
For example, let’s say your word was volcano. From volcano, you start expanding. What makes the volcano different? It is about to erupt. Who will be affected by the volcano’s eruption? A farmer.
Now you have a situation and a character. Now you can really begin. You can easily create a plot from this. The farmer wants to save himself and his family, but his farm had been given down for generations and he doesn’t want to lose it. There you have internal and external conflict.
This method can work well if you ask the right questions. Also feel free to branch into different ideas. I split into a new column (on a paper) every time there is a different answer for a question and then follow the one I like the most. If I hit a dead end, I return to the previous fork.
Another method is this. Walk around. Look at everything, taking in all the information you can. This would work especially well if you go somewhere spacious with many people and objects. Every time you see an object or an aspect of the object, you think. What could happen? How could this be different? Who could this affect? How would people react?
Let’s say you see a shopping trolley lying on its side beside a parked car. Normally, this would not be very odd, but through inspection, it can lead to something. Why is it beside a car? Someone was packing in groceries. Why is it lying on its side? Someone bumped it over in a struggle. Why is it beside an empty car? Because the owner of both the car and the trolley was kidnapped. And so on.
When I first tried this, it came a bit hard, but the more I do it, the easier it seems to come. Some ideas lead nowhere, but others evolve into a giant story that overwhelms me in awesomeness.
Look around and see. Ideas are floating around everywhere, you just have to take them.