Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Stories for Sendai

Stories for Sendai is a collection of short stories and poems based loosely on the theme ‘strength of the human spirit’. All proceeds (minus the overhead costs as far as I’m aware) go to GlobalGiving, an organisation that has a part in aiding the victims of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan.

In addition to the monetary implications of the anthology, the stories and poems provide a message of strength in adversity. Hopefully, the positive message will help in a time of crisis.

Not only is this a great cause, if you buy it, you will also get a collection of short stories and poems by some great writers (see a complete list of them here). Plus, my story was accepted too, so if you ever wanted to read something I wrote, buy a copy of the anthology.

The Japanese are some pretty awesome folk. Do what you can to help them and buy a copy when it is (scheduled to be) published on 30 June this year. See the website for more information.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Crafting a Story : Inciting Incident

The inciting incident’s random word is:

Passion, in general, refers to a large amount of emotion about something. Normally positive, as in being devoted to something. Passionate means that you are easily swayed by your emotions and easily swept up into making something bigger than it is, thinking with your emotions instead of your head. Passion also designates desire.

Let’s say for a second that Irwin’s girlfriend is now interested in Henry. And then, when Henry finally caves in and accepts her, Irwin is roused by the event, and angry. Thus, Henry giving in to passion allows Irwin to come back and haunt him.

Now the question is, how did Irwin’s girlfriend fall for Henry? The two men are on opposite ends of a giant spectrum. Let’s say that the person Henry saved in the shop that Irwin was robbing was in fact, Irwin’s girlfriend. Let’s say that she and Irwin were working together with her acting as a hostage to ensure a clean getaway. Maybe she didn’t like the plan much. Or maybe she was swayed by Henry’s sudden courage. Since she was with Irwin, I’m going to assume that she comes from the same kind of life he does; poor, crime-ridden neighbourhood. Struggling to get by, perhaps. Then, Henry symbolically saves her from that life. So, she gets infatuated with him.

So now, Henry accepts the girlfriend’s advances and offers to take her with him to a quiet house in a forest (the one his uncle left to him). By the time they get there, the spirit of Irwin is furious and begins to test out his power and so on.

The inciting incident has not only given us another character – whom we shall call Jasmine Heart for now – but also a note of deception for a large part of the story. Jasmine has been hiding the fact that she had been working with Irwin because she fears of what Henry would think of her if he knew. Obviously, if the spirit can communicate with them in some way, it will become apparent (eventually) that Jasmine and Irwin are connected in some way. Eventually the truth will leak out and Henry will see betrayal everywhere.

The catalyst will tell us more about the way in which Irwin’s ghost was awakened and the sort of powers he possesses. We’ll look at that next week.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Why I don't need Publishers to Approve my Work

Yesterday, I made a post as to why I need publishers to validate my work. In response to that, I got a whole lot of comments. Firstly, thanks to Michelle, Mood and Chancellor for your comments. It really got me thinking and changed my opinion somewhat. Here is my conclusion.

At first, I had thought that publishers are, as Mood said, arbiters of quality. That they can judge the worth of something better than I can. Therefore, they would tell me when my work has become quality (by publishing my book).

Mood tried to tell me that it was wrong, but I didn’t quite grasp it. Then Michelle made a comment (that got eaten) saying something that switched on a lightbulb. I don’t know if it’s the right one, but here it is:

Do you honestly think a Big 6 publisher would publish some of the experimental classics now if they had never been written and published before? Hell no. That doesn't mean they aren't some of the most amazing things ever written - it means they are basing things on what sells NOW, or what they think will sell now.

Publishers (especially successful ones) will publish what they believe sells. But, as Mood tried to point out, they don’t know what will. They can look into the past and see what sold, but they can’t tell us what will sell. They follow the tried and trusted recipe rather than taking a risk. Therefore, by trying to get validated by publishers (who look at what worked, rather than at what could work) I would be writing backwards instead of forwards. I would be trying to replicate what other authors did instead of doing what could work in the future.

So, with this revelation, I started to wonder, where does my validation come from? If it didn’t come from publishers, would it then come from readers? In a sense, yes. But then I thought, readers are just as biased as publishers. There will be people who will not like what I write and I can’t use them to judge the worth of my work.

The only option that is left (and suggested by everyone else) is myself. Now, the thing here is that I still have the problem that I can’t tell whether I’m good or not. I don’t trust myself to validate my own work, but I’m the only person who can do it (since the other options are already ruled out). That leaves only the option that I need to find a way to trust myself to make judgements about my own work. The general fact is that I don’t. As a person, I’m very fact orientated. Subjectivity seems like a bad way to judge things (it leaves a giant margin of error), but maybe it’s a necessity. Some things can’t be judged objectively (or at least, shouldn’t be).

I have no idea how I’ll manage to do this, but at least it’s a start. I’ll try to wrap my head around subjectively validating my own work and get back to you.

Thanks for all the comments yesterday, and I would appreciate some for my conclusion as well. Just to see that I didn’t miss the boat again.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Why I need Publishers to Approve my Work

I’d recently commented on Michelle D. Argyle’s blog, on a post about whether publishing is the end all (or something like that). I mentioned that publishing is a must for me because I need the publisher to validate my work. Michelle had made a post about validation some time back, I think, and in her answer to me she also mentioned the same viewpoint. She says that it is not a good idea to rely on publishers (and agents) for ALL your validation. Because they are financially orientated and might have other goals than to publish great fiction(namely, to publish SELLABLE fiction). Either way, I decided to expand my comment into this post and explain why I think SOME writers need to get a publisher’s approval.

I don’t trust my own judgement.
I am a very subjective person (as most humans are). When I was younger, I used to draw a lot. When I was happy with it, I would proudly show it to everyone in my family. If I go back now, I can see that whatever I drew was pretty much trash. To put it mildly, I sucked at drawing. But my younger self thought it was brilliant. Maybe this is being over analytical, but I don’t trust my own opinion about something I made. I don’t want to look back after five years and see that this piece of fiction I thought was amazing actually sucks. Therefore, I rely on the opinion of a completely objective source (they have to make money, therefore they will not spare my feelings).

I don’t trust my own judgement (part 2)
To further my story, when I drew these things, I used to show it to my brother and ask him what he thought. He always replied with the same general answer. “It’s good.” At first, I was ecstatic, to receive such kind words from him. But later on, I started to suspect that he was simply sparing my feelings. I tested this by drawing something VERY badly, then showing it to him. “It’s good,” he said. This conditioned me to believe that he was not giving honest feedback. Somewhere in there, I started to create the mentality that everything I did was bad. I would go to him and probe and probe him, trying to get him to tell me what was wrong with it. I don’t think he ever did.
Anyway, the point is, I have a natural tendency to assume my work sucks. I have no way of knowing if any beta readers are telling the truth. But, I can’t rely on my own judgements (that it’s bad) either, for they may be biased. Therefore, a publisher again provides objective feedback.

My goal and the publisher’s goal is pretty much the same
The publisher wants to make as much money as possible. I want as many people as possible to read my books. In the end, our goals are the same. Thus, if a publisher rejects my book, the chances are that the book wouldn’t have sold much. Therefore, I can judge how well my book fits my goal by how much the book fits the publisher’s goal. The publisher knows better than me. I can say this because I know nothing about public demand, marketing or any other publishing related information. They have done this for who knows how long, so why should I doubt them?

That’s the main reasons why I believe I need a publisher’s approval. However, there are other factors to take into account. Sometimes publishers make bad decisions. Sometimes publishers reject masterpieces (Dune was rejected with a letter "I might be making the mistake of the decade, but..."). Also, it is impossible to know how the public will respond (as with Harry Potter that sold far more than expected).

In conclusion, I still think that a publisher’s validation will always be an important part of the writing process for me, but perhaps I should start finding a way to validate my own work. I can’t rely on publishers alone to tell me if what I wrote is acceptable. Sometimes, you have to judge your own worth, subjective or not.

Is a publisher’s validation important to you as a writer? Or are they simply a tool to get your book out there?

Edit: After the discussion in the comments, I've come to a different conclusion.  See this, here.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Crafting a Story : Setting

The setting’s random word is:

Powder can mean a whole range of things, but after a little while, I settled on flour. A powdery substance created by milling grain. An interesting mill would be either a windmill or a waterwheel. Let’s go with waterwheel for now.

Since waterwheels aren’t really used for milling any more, I think it should be an old house in the woods that someone left Henry in a will. In other words, Henry gets the house and drives there to check it out. Maybe he wants to sell it later, or maybe he has fond memories. Either way, he’s going there and the main part of the story will happen there.

Maybe the person who left the place to Henry – say, an uncle – was a handy person and upgraded the waterwheel into an electricity generator. Thus, the electricity comes directly from the house itself. I don’t know if it can power a whole house, but let’s say there is a river rapid behind the house that increases the electricity generated.

Thus, we have a house, attached to and powered by a waterwheel, standing alongside rapids. It is an old house, maybe some floorboards could break. Either way, there are at least three ways Henry could get hurt thus far: The waterwheel itself (if something breaks and he goes to check it), the old house that could collapse/break under him, and the rapids behind the house (where he could possibly fall into).

I’m not sure why the house is connected to Irwin’s ghost, but the catalyst and inciting incident will provide more clues as to why.

Let’s say it is far away from civilisation and inside a forest. Maybe Henry had to walk (leaving his car somewhere – a town just before the forest, maybe) a long way to get there - thus a long way back.

That’s all for setting for now. Next week is the inciting incident.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Spectra of Development

To achieve a great story, plot usually isn’t enough. You need characters. But more than that, you need characters that change during the course of the story. They need to be affected by what is happening around them. This is a huge subject and there are a variety of different ways to achieve this, but today I just want to share one thing I read somewhere on the Writer’s Digest site. (Couldn’t find it again...)

The idea is that each character has a certain degree of the following spectra:

Tough Guy <–> Whiner
Team Guy <–> Rebel
Artist <–> Dreamer
Smarty <–> Dummy
Blooming Rose <–> Wallflower
Grinder <–> Lazy Dog
Goody <–> Baddy
Believer <–> Doubter

In other words, the character is for example, a whiner, rebel, artist, smarty, wallflower, grinder, goody and doubter. Then, by the end of your story, the character should have developed at least two or three spectra to the other side. Say, he changed from rebel to team guy, wallflower to blooming rose and doubter to believer.

In this way, you can measure how your character changed. (And if he did.)

This is by no means foolproof, perfect or the best method. This is A method. If it works for you, then that’s great.

Fun fact, I also remember the person saying that Sarah Conner from the Terminator movie has a perfect character development – each of the 8 attributes changed in her. Look again.

What do you think of this method? Do you find it useful? Interesting? None of the above?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Companion of Wisdom

Patience is a virtue, they always say. (They who? I don’t know. They them. Them they. Whoever that may be.) Is it? A virtue, I mean? Specifically for writers, I would say yes. For a writer to have patience is key to success. In what ways? In these:

Writing the first draft
In general, the first draft is crap. Most people will agree (except for those who polish as they go). So while you’re writing and you think, “This is crap”, you have to have patience. Good writing takes a long time to achieve. You need to push through the bad, and do so patiently, then get to the good.

The ending
I, for one, suck at endings. Maybe there are some others that have the same problem. I remember reading somewhere (I can’t remember where, sorry) that the ending is more often bad than the beginning, because people put enormous time and effort into thinking up the beginning, but only a few moments for the end. In other words, you have to have patience to think through your ending. Don’t rush to it. Don’t start running sloppy* just because you see the finish line (or is that finishing line?).

When you finished the first draft (which sucks; see first point), you want to revise it so it looks shiny. However, most people (contradict me if you disagree with this), say that you should wait a bit before revising it. Something about you not being objective and you reading it the way you intended it to look instead of the way it actually looks. Bottom line, you need to let it simmer before you can revise well. Thus, you need patience to let the draft cool down before working on it again.

Shipping your product
Last, and most obvious, don’t send your manuscript to potential publishers/agents/self-publish print places before it is ready. Revise and revise until you get everything right. Get beta readers and interrogate them until they tell you what’s wrong and revise. Ergo, have the patience to keep your baby (that would be your manuscript for those of you who are less metaphorically inclined) to yourself (and your beta readers, obviously) as long as it is not ready. Ship when it’s ready, but not before.

Patience is important. If you don’t have it, learn it. Grow a plant from its seed. It sort of teaches you that there are some things you can’t rush. (I stole that idea from C. Hope Clark)

Trivia : This post was inspired by standing in a queue. In the sun. In South Africa. (It’s as if we have our own, special, extra hot sun) Not so much fun. But it’s over now.

* I actually have no idea what it means to run sloppy. I’m not good at sport metaphors.

Patience? Yes? No? Anything you want to add? Feel free to comment.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Crafting a Story : Antagonist

The antagonist’s random word is:

Last week, I made the protagonist. This week, it’s time for the antagonist. Faint has a number of different definitions, but it generally means either losing consciousness or not being strong or clear. I’m going with the latter.

So that leaves me with a weak person or a transparent person. Since I love me some supernatural, I’m going to pick the second one. Offhandedly, I’d say this person is a ghost. That means that someone’s ghost is going to cause problems for our protagonist, at this point named Henry.

I know nothing about this ghost, except that he is dead and Henry or his shop has something to do with it. Since the setting will have its own random word, let’s say this ghost is attached to Henry himself. Something had to make him emerge, but we’ll get to that later. For now, we know that this ghost is dead because of Henry and now haunts him.

How did he die? From what we know of Henry – patient, methodical and a perfectionist – I would say that the chances are pretty slim that the death happened by accident (in a way that it would be Henry’s fault). So instead we are left with two choices: Henry murdered him, or killed him in defence. I think we’ll put aside the notion of a villain protagonist and stick with a hero for now. So Henry killed someone in defence some time ago and now his ghost is coming back to haunt him.

Since he was killed in defence, chances are that the ghost was a criminal of some kind in his life. Also, he was a violent criminal. A serial killer maybe? A basic robber? Bank robber? Maybe. Rather a smaller operation that would only require one guy. A store robbery then. Let’s say there was a robbery and Henry was in the store. In an act of bravery, he grabbed the gun and shot the robber before he could shoot the cashier. Henry was not charged.

So the ghost haunts Henry because he killed him. Revenge? Maybe. Or perhaps not. We’ll have to wait for the rest of the story to flesh this part out.

Taking all this into consideration, let’s call the antagonist Irwin Wiles.

That’s all for now. Next week is the setting.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Tension and How to Get Some

(Side Note: The post is late because Blogger broke yesterday)

I have previously touched upon the subject of tension, but today I’m going to try and discuss it more directly.

Tension is the thing that keeps people reading. It’s anticipation for a future event that remains unsure. Thus, dangling an uncertain future (or a past that remains undisclosed) in front of readers and delaying the revelation of it is how you achieve tension and subsequently reading readers.

Maass, in his book, The Fire in Fiction, refers to the term microfiction, explained as tension all the time. What this means is that theoretically, you can have tension in every one of the sentences you write. I will admit that this sounds ludicrous, but I’m pretty sure Maass only meant that every sentence has the potential to contain tension, and not that every sentence should have it.

Let me quote an example from his book. (I might have quoted this before, I’m not sure. But it’s a good example.) “He crossed the room” as opposed to “He drifted across the room. Was he dreaming? Was he dead?”. Just a small hint of tension can create a big difference.

Adding tension is a simple process of making something uncertain. If a pacifist hero has to decide whether to execute a man or not, don’t make the man an innocent farmer. Make him a evil warlord who killed a million people. That way, your character will have to be in conflict with himself. Should he break his vow to preserve life to save lives? The internal conflict will eat him up and consequently let your readers eat the novel up.

Is your hero dashing after a kidnapped heroine? Let his father fall ill and unable to tend to the farm, which would lead to the farm’s demise and probably his father’s death. No matter what decision he makes, the other will always haunt him where he goes, as he will wonder if he made the right choice. Conflict is the key to tension. Not so much external conflict, but more often internal.

This is a very loose explanation, I know. If you want to master this, the best advice I can give is to read Maass’s books. He knows his stuff.

Do you agree with Maass? Do you have other ways to create tension?

Edit : Do yourself a favour and read here and here.  The links were provided by Mooderino in the comments, and they're worth a read.  As mentioned, micro-tension is a pretty hard subject, so many views are useful.  Maybe I'll take a crack at specifically micro-tension explaining. (I shrunk in embarrassment of how sparse my post was against those two.)

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Getting Honest Feedback

I don’t have a lot of beta readers. But one of my most constant ones is my brother, and I often feel that he isn’t being honest. Why wouldn't he be? I don’t know. Maybe to spare my feelings. Or maybe I’m just imagining it because I think little of my own work.

How do you know when feedback is honest? Some people (that you know VERY well) might have recognisable behaviour when they lie or sugarcoat. But mostly, the burden of that lies on you. We live in a world where most people are taught to be polite. They naturally lean towards making you feel better instead of giving you the information you need.

So how do you get honest feedback? Here are a few suggestions.

Tell them that you want honest feedback. Normally, this won’t help much, but make sure they know you want them to criticise.

When you do get honest feedback, don’t blow up at them. This will condition them to avoid doing the same thing later on. You need to learn how to handle getting negative feedback.

Ask questions that force honesty. The key here is to word it perfectly. If you ask ‘What part didn’t you like?’, they can say, ‘Nothing.’ Instead, ask them ‘What part/character (or whatever else you need feedback on) did you like the least?’ Even with this, you might still get a ‘everything was great’ response. Try to coax it out of them.

Change the medium. Some people will be more honest when they write feedback than when they have to tell you to your face. This will most probably be different for every person, so try to find the right method.

As a general rule, don’t let bad feedback become personal, rather use it to better your manuscript. Some people will keep going on in their polite ways. To break these guys, you have to get them to criticise a small thing at first (not so impolite) and then show them that you appreciate it. That way, you condition them to give you honesty rather than politeness.

And be sure to THANK your beta readers who took the time to read your story.

Do you have other ways to ensure honesty from your beta readers?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Crafting a Story : Protagonist

The protagonist’s random word is:

Since sole can refer to a number of things, I picked one that worked better.

Sole : The underside of footwear.

Since we’re dealing with a person, I think the word sole should be used as a job description. Let’s say our protagonist works in or owns a shoe repair shop. Let’s also assume that he does the repairing work himself.

Our protagonist seems to me, based off his job, to be a patient person. Maybe methodical and a perfectionist. (Maybe not, but this is the creating part) He believes in saving money (since it is better, financially, to repair shoes than buy new ones), so he is probably frugal. If this is so, let’s also assume that he is someone who saves in other avenues of life. So we can say that he grows his own fruit and vegetables. Maybe he doesn’t like eating plants grown by other people – like the vegetables in the supermarket.

With all that, he is probably a difficult person. He can either react to other people by avoidance or confrontation. Let’s say he’s the confrontation type (since it spells more conflict). Thus, he likes to point out things that are done incorrectly and he likes insulting other people’s food. Think, telling the host of a dinner that his carrots are preservative-loaded trash.

Considering that, he is probably not very social and does not have many friends. Say he has bad eyesight and wears thick glasses (which could have led to social isolation that in turn could have led to a change in behaviour to a more difficult person).

What does this person want in life? Maybe he has no idea. He’s just going along, making a living (barely, not many people repair their shoes), trying to find a calling, or maybe he even thinks that fixing shoes is his calling.

After taking all the information into consideration, for now I think I’ll call our protagonist Henry. Henry James. Maybe it’ll change later, maybe not. We’ll see.

That’s all for the protagonist part. Next week we look at the antagonist.

(Feel free to add anything in the comments.)

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Bear vs Bare

I recently read a article where the writer used the word ‘bare’ where there should have been ‘bear’ (as in verb, not noun). This is actually more common than I originally thought, so here is the correct usages.

Bear - 1. to support the weight of
           2. to be indulgent, patient, or forbearing with (someone)

There are a lot of other possibilities, but these are the ones I think cause the most trouble.

Bare - : to make or lay (something) bare : UNCOVER

So when someone types ‘bare with me’, it is probably not what he/she meant. Bear with me. The soldiers bear arms. Not ‘bare’.
In general, if you want to use ‘bear’ or ‘bare’, it will probably be the former, unless it has something to do with uncovering.
For example, ‘Peter bears a secret’ means that he has the burden of a secret, while ‘Peter bares a secret’ means that he is telling the secret.

Bear – Most often used; To support or be patient with, among other things. Easiest way is to use when ‘bare’ is not applicable. (e.g. “This will be a long speech, but please bear with me.”)
Bare – Uncover, to lay bare. (e.g. “John bared his chest to show his scar”)

Friday, May 6, 2011

Finding Voice

Today, I want to touch the subject of voice. Not long ago, I finished Dean Koontz’s What the Night Knows. While reading it, I couldn’t help but notice the unique voice that each character, done in third-person limited POV, had. The use of words and just the general style of the sentences identified each character so that I could pretty accurately identify a character without seeing his or her name.

Normally when you hear ‘voice’, you think of the author’s identifiable writing style that made it possible for people to divine that Richard Bachman was in fact Stephen King. (If you find the possibility of identification through voice interesting, check out the experiment at Literary Lab here, and the conclusions here.)

But each character in a story has their own voice (or should have their own voice) and when you’re writing first person or third person limited, that voice has to come through the text.

How do you construct a unique voice? Look at these excerpts from What the Night Knows:

1) The previous night, his nerves had been fried because of the freaking dream in which the big hands had tried to tear off his face and gouge out his eyes, those fingertips as big as soup spoons. He was a little disappointed in himself that he’d been rattled by a moronic dream.

2) For a moment, this curious uneasiness threatened to disorient him – until he understood the cause of it. Together, the family was five targets clustered, therefore vulnerable to quick annihilation. Although he had no incontestable proof that any enemy waged war against him, he was thinking like a man embattled.

Do you see the difference? Though there are no names in the passages, the two voices clearly defines them. Can you guess which is the father and which is the son?

Vocabulary can often suggest a voice – a professor is apt to use bigger words than, say, a kid in high school. Another is the way in which they compare things (e.g. soup spoons and a war). The way in which their train of thought moves.

It is important to find your voice, but don’t forget to find your characters’ voices too.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


Can you become a great writer simply by sitting in a room and writing?

How do you write about a man freezing to death if you have lived your whole life in the tropics, where the lowest temperature is 18 degrees Celsius? You can guess and you can assume and even research. But the best way to show a man freezing to death is actually knowing how it feels – or at least a part of it. Take a holiday in the Alps. You don’t have to actually get yourself frostbite*, but you have to know what it feels like when the temperature is below freezing point.

There are some things in life that most people will never experience. Taking someone else’s life, for example. Anyone who has gone down this road will know that it is no simple matter. If you’re writing a war story, should you go and join the army?** I’m pretty sure that’s not necessary. If you’re writing a serial killer, do you go murder people? No.

Even though you can’t expect to experience everything your character will experience, there is always a middle ground. Tiny everyday experiences can be elevated to fantastical fictional experiences. If you were robbed on the street by a man with a knife, you can relate to a soldier being held at sword-point for treason. If you stand outside while it’s snowing and you shiver through your thin jacket, you can relate to someone freezing to death.

Combine your experiences with knowledge and you might have a better chance at getting your fiction to sound and feel realistic.

Get out of the house and experience life. The more experiences you have to draw from, the better your fiction will be.

If you get a chance to travel to the streets of Israel where your WIP is set in, it can only do your story good if you go and experience that which your characters will experience.

* Though doing that will give you a better perspective.
** This too.

Disclaimer: I am not saying that you should go out and get yourself robbed just to relate to your characters better.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Crafting a Story

I’m going to replace my usual Monday entry with another series of posts. It’s going to be about crafting a longer story out of its main components, and using random words that I will get here as inspiration for each of the points. Maybe (okay, probably) it will fail, but I’d like to see what we (yes, that includes anyone reading this) can do to make it work.

First up, though, is to break down a story in its essential parts.

Here is everything I can think of at this point:

Inciting incident (the event that changes everything for the protagonist)
Catalyst (the thing that allows or helps the inciting incident to happen)

Of all these, I think we’ll have to leave theme out of the random word generator and rather deduce it in the end.
A secondary character might be useful but is not necessary for a story to be a story.

If you can think of anything else that is essential to a story, please share it in the comments.