Idea generator

Honestly, if the vast majority of authors were confined to writing only about the kind of person that they are and only their experiences, most books would be a bit boring. Writers do not live the exciting lives that they describe in books. If they did, these constant adventures would drain them of the very energy needed to sit and record their feats for hours on end. If everyone could only relay their own experience, I would not have traveled the court of Kublai Khan, nor learned how the Nez Pierce mastered the “big dogs” that could be ridden, nor wandered through a recently abandoned Machu Picchu with a Quechua boy. I enjoyed these far flung people’s adventures, because people, who had not done these things, wrote about them.

As a young teenager I read the story of a fiction character who traveled with Marco Polo to China. Did the author actually do that? No. He wasn’t even from Italy. Most likely he read Marco Polo’s Travels which were recorded when this real adventurer was thrown in prison on his return to Venice. Basing ideas for new books on ideas gathered from old ones is a natural part of creativity. Authors, like other people, have an idea of what makes an excellent book based on what they have read.  Most creative works—music, visual arts, and even movies—are inspired by other artists who have produced earlier works. That is not a bad thing, or something to be discouraged. However, being inspired by other stories does not mean that I should duplicate them. My book should show a definite difference and include facets of my own personality and creativity. Authors must give part of themselves when they write in order to connect with other humans.

So, how do I insert my ideas and my style into a book inspired by another person’s writing? My sporadic journaling is not terribly interesting. It contains events that occur to me and also my thoughts, because my thoughts are more eventful then the occurrences in my real life. However, when an occasional real-life event does become interesting, I have the details for a story. Often vague ideas float into my mind, unattached to all the little details necessary to write interesting fiction. I struggle to place this idea in a world perceivable by real senses. So, I often pull up previous journaling to gather such sensory details. Then, I can block out the world and try to imagine the scenes in which characters act out that vague idea.

Creating a story from the idea requires throwing problems at the characters and inventing logical ways to solve them. The challenge of writing is often about seeking out the problems. This is made more difficult because I usually don’t have one central villain trying to destroy my main character. The vague ideas give me a sense of who the characters are, my journal fills in the details, but the challenges and problems that I create for them are the gist of the story. Writing comes from my reading, my own experiences and my imagination. If my life was exciting, dramatic and stress-filled in the manner experienced by many characters in novels, I would not enjoy it very much.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Vanilla, Chocolate, or Bananas Foster

Deciding which flavor of ice cream to order from the twenty types behind the protective glass is a matter of taste. But if you are trying to create a new flavor, it’s best to have others sample it before you offer it to the public. This culinary critique group often expects to have multiple shades of the same flavor to determine which they prefer. That is one aspect that is more difficult than placing your precious words in front of a writing critique group.

When involved in a literary critique group, they only expect one variation, but rarely is everybody pleased with it. Members tend to go one of a few directions.

1. They are very precise about grammar and usage rules. Therefore, they will point out all errors and even preferences that are not errors. They may point out a preposition at the end of a sentence, or “that” following a type of person rather than “who.” Both of these constructions are acceptable, even if they are not preferable. Like tastes in ice cream, people learn grammar rules at a particular age and tend to stick with them, even as their language continues to change.

2. They have read the current books about writing and want to direct me to change all writing to follow those formats. Some of these comments may be useful because I really don’t want an “info dump” following my exciting first scene. However, adverbs are still a legitimate part of speech. If they are all expunged, this impoverishes my writing. Also, I don’t want my memoir forced into a horror/suspense format.

3. They read for content and find that some events or character’s actions are not ringing true. They may be true for the life I live (I’ve had Bananas Foster ice cream at my local shop.). But, theirs has not been the same, and I wonder if they realize the differences. Or perhaps, the book is beginning to drag, and I should add a bit of tension. It is useful to know if a scene needs more detail or requires trimming.

Because opinions are a matter of taste (I am one of the few who does not like vanilla ice cream.), it seems best to have people read each other’s work and provide comments before the critique group meets. That way people will receive comments from these different viewpoints. Otherwise the most dominant person in the group will set the tone. It does help to set up a structure so that all people have a chance to speak once the group meets.

Any criticism should also provide a rationale for what is wrong, or way of dealing with the problem. Then, the author can ask questions of individuals at the end of all the comments. For example, if a person tells me to get rid of passive tense, I can ask for rewording advice. If the reworded sentence sounds worse, I should know not to take the advice and they should learn that passive tense is sometimes necessary. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

In praise of the passive hero

Don’t create a main character who just is passive, watching the other characters without taking charge or getting things done. Also, don’t read books by two of the most famous American authors Herman Melville and F. Scott Fitzgerald because they both broke that rule in their best-selling novels. (And, don’t expect me not to be sarcastic when it comes to dealing with rules for writing.)

Melville also wrote one of the most recognizable first lines of a novel, “Call me Ishmael.” Because of this, some people are foolish enough to offer it as an example of an icon hook, the kind of phrase that draws the reader into the story so that they feel compelled to keep reading. There is nothing inherently fabulous about introducing a character by name at the beginning of the book. He could’ve said, “My name is John Smith” with the same impact.

In this same manner, Ishmael does not fit the action hero. Rather he is a very observant person. He reports on the behavior of his strange, South Sea islander roommate, Queequeg. Then Ishmael, describes life on a whaling ship until we finally get to meet the obsessed Captain Ahab. Ishmael excels at watching what occurs around him, and the story he observes is intriguing. Modern writers assume that a particularly devious and vicious villain will present a worthy challenge for the hero to combat, a fight with no holds barred. But, who exactly is the villain in Moby Dick? Is it the monstrous white whale trying to save his own life ? Or, the obsessed captain Ahab who wants to destroy the whale that sent so many ships to their doom? That complex conflict between morally vague characters is what has kept readers persevering through massive descriptive text to reach the end of Moby Dick.

Nick Carraway, the point of view character in The Great Gatsby, is another example of the protagonist who is cautious and reluctant to act. He watches the world of the wealthy and bored weaving their intrigues around him, and even gets involved in bringing Daisy and Jay Gatsby back together. In both of these famous novels, the books bear the title, not of the main character, but of the most compelling one. The protagonist is the one narrating, even though the story revolves around another more dominating personality. The main character’s internal thoughts help develop that other character into a memorable one in the mind of the reader. In a tragedy, someone has to survive to relay the story. The passive observer may be the right person to do just that.

Posted in Characters, Literary devices, Writer's resource | Leave a comment

Not exactly human

While embarking on a new type of writing, creating alternate world fantasy, I rebelled against copying what I already knew. Instead I insisted on creating my own species and giving them my own names. However creative I attempted to be, they still resembled fantastic human-like creatures in classical myths. The cavelings dwelt in caves, raised fungus, farmed blind water creatures, and mined precious substances from the ground. When they wandered outside they stuck to the level ground and feared climbing trees or foot hills. That sounds a bit like dwarves, but the other species treat them more like trolls, and physically they don’t look like either. 

How was I to make these cavelings original? I had to create a main character that struggled to overcome his fear of heights and his ground loving attitude to gain a reputation among the treelings (who live in interconnected tree houses) when they must battle some renegade skylings (who have come down from the mountains where they live).

If I modified common species, readers would carry over their prior knowledge of species, such as dwarves and elves. That makes it easier to get directly into the plot. But, the characters may either echo others that are very common or conflict with the readers ideas of what these species should be. When I create my own, I call the shots.

If you look at early Star Trek episodes the alien races were based on different human ethnicities: Klingons were vaguely Mongolian, Romulans were supposed to be a meld of Asians. The Vulcans were part European and part elf. To design an ethnic group and not mimic one that currently exists, you have to choose features that simply don’t exist in humans. However even this may not work. People may connect them with an ethnicity. In the movie Avatar, the indigenous race was noted by many people to be blue native Americans with tails.

People remember by connecting new things to ones they currently know. So, whatever behaviors and values that you assign to your invented ethnicity will be connected with real groups that show similar ones. The depth of individual character development is the key to making invented species memorable ones – just like it is when writing about humans.

Posted in Characters, Writer's resource | Tagged | Leave a comment

Simmering the main character

Character development is probably the only way to make a protagonist that is someone else than a flat or stock character. However, this takes time and results in a slower pace of writing, like a stew that must simmer for hours. As the author describes how the main character deals with conflicts in their real world the story is not driven by the danger of the type of conflict, but it traces how this person responds to everyday irritations and tragedies.

The goal of the writer is to absorb the reader with the life of the main character. They should feel concern for their struggles, compassion for problems, and the more common that these struggles and problems are, the more that they strike close to home. The reader’s wish is to watch the birth of hidden strength or a secret heroism in someone like themselves.

The slowly developed character can grab the reader’s attention using a few different techniques in early scenes. One is to introduce an incongruity. For example, the guy works as an auto mechanic but in a conversation with a customer, he reveals an understanding of quantum physics. It is important not to say that he is a genius working in a position beneath his ability but to show it. A character that is interesting but not completely predictable, is worth reading about.

Also, a good writer doesn’t cannot just grab the reader’s interest and drop any mention of the dichotomy after that point. It needs to be part of the story and a source of growing tension. Another technique to increase tension is to introduce the conflict early but not reveal the problem in its entirety. Diving into only one aspect at the start allows the conflict to continue to grow in order to keep the reader’s attention.

The enduring popularity of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable, is based on such a main character. Jean Valjean has criminal past and is a hulking, intimidating man, someone to fear physically. Yet, the trials interspersed with rare forgiveness that he experiences lead him to be a kind and gentle person. This transformation does not get rid of his problems, but only creates a dichotomous tension that follows him throughout his life. The slowly developed character, such as this is difficult to master. But, as they grow they dominate the story in a way that turns it into a memorable one in the mind of the reader.

Posted in Characters, Literature, Writer's resource | Leave a comment

Nonlinear, when does it work?

At one point when watching a Benedict Cumberbatch movie, my friend commented that this actor must have the requirement that all of his movies or series be nonlinear. At one moment Cumberbatch would be studiously studying a problem in the 1940s, then the scene would jump back to some prior time and we would have to wait until someone spoke the character’s name to figure out the childhood version of his adult character. 

A nonlinear timeline requires good planning to make it fit into the drama seamlessly. It also requires a very good reason to make the reader work so hard to figure out what is actually happening. Jumps within time may amp up the excitement or cause thoughts to spin and unravel.

When using a nonlinear plot line, information has to be repeated. The reader is given some prior knowledge concerning the events that will occur later in the book, but earlier in the chronology. Does that sound confusing? It is. That’s why the information has to be repeated for clarification. If the nonlinear books and movies were presented in a simple linear manner, they would be shorter, and the resolution to the conflict more obvious. But the beginning would not be as exciting.

One of the most frequent uses of the nonlinear timeline is starting in res media, dropping the reader into the middle of the action. Then, the plot timeline backs up and introduces all the prior events that describe who the characters are and how they got into this tangle. If the backup can be pushed to the real beginning of the story, it can move chronologically forward until reaching the point at which the book begins. This may be frowned upon as too much backstory at one time. However, the book is easier to understand if the beginning story is narrated in a straightforward manner, as if it is part of the plot.

Nothing is quite as confusing as continuing the current storyline, sprinkled with a profusion of flashbacks. If these chronological shifts are too distracting in a book, I skip past these memories that inform me about earlier events. Then, I try to pick up the story where it starts up again. I may miss clues that have been dropped, but at some point, the author will explain them again. That is why I rarely go to theaters to watch suspense movies. I can control the order in which I watch events with a subscription or recording.

The nonlinear timeline may be used to evoke emotions or overused to produce confusion. The main character’s actions reappear in flashbacks until the reader/viewer is not sure if they are in the present or the past. As the show Sherlock continued it was not so much about following the clues as untangling the neurotic mess in the mind of the title character. The difficult of following this sequence is exactly why my friend and I gave up watching Benedict Cumberbatch play Sherlock Holmes.

Posted in illusion, Story structure, Writer's resource | Tagged , | Leave a comment

“Crazy” characters

If you want to write fiction involving mentally ill characters in a realistic way, to show how and why they no longer think clearly, you must get to know real people with real psychiatric disorders. There are many places that provide services for these people that need volunteers. Homeless shelters or food kitchens that provide free meals are a good place to start. Many of the homeless exhibit symptoms of mental illness. My recommendation is to work with these people without fear and get to know them. They will exhibit different behavior, but “normal” people have more in common with them than most realize. 

If you want to make characters real, they should have psychological needs. However, like “normal” people, their psychological needs will differ. An artist showed me their version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It was an upside down triangle with self-actualization and creativity on the bottom, and food, water, and shelter on the top. I had to laugh because this seems to be painfully true for many creative people. However, those suffering from mental illness will not conform the way society thinks they should. To portray their needs, you must observe humankind, read abnormal psychology texts, and also books from other cultures and periods of time

You can create characters obsessed with creating one thing, characters who are consumed with maintaining an appearance, or those whose goal is to appease their appetites far more than necessary. If the character doesn’t talk much, you must go into the interior thoughts to express what this character is thinking. When people have “altered” their memories they are changing these for a reason. People may do this to protect themselves from past pain, from what they fear in the weaker and baser side of their personality. Many justify themselves, clinging to a world that exists in their mind parallel to the one that we think everybody else sees.

Often the mentally ill character will seem childlike and unable to direct themselves, seeking guidance from people that are less than reliable. They try to find the easiest way to avoid harm, because pain and neglect are common occurrences in their lives. 

The mental problems that originate from past experiences must leak into the thoughts of the character or be supplied by other characters, so readers know they are dealing with someone who has gone through a traumatic experience or a mental breakdown. As an author, you want the reader to understand the mentally ill character from their own point of view.

Posted in Characters, Literature, mental health | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Reduction of language

Sometimes, I am fearful for the future of writing. We are not exactly converting to “newspeak,” But, there’s a trend of eliminating some words or even parts of speech from usage. I’ve read questions on a writing forum in which it was assumed that grammar meant the same as style, organization or even content. This assumption appeared too frequently for my comfort.

One person submitted a sample bemoaning that it was graded low by a teacher despite having no errors. A commenter, who should have known better, claimed it had “poor grammar” and “run-on sentences.” Then, he rewrote the sample in his own style. The problem was actually a mix of organization and voice, such as weak connection of ideas between the clauses. My reply to the commenter indicated that he diagnosed the sample incorrectly. There were no run-on sentences and no errors in grammar. Student often fail to understand when people try to force writing into their own style. Only the teacher could explain what style was expected.

Some teachers can be inflexible in this matter of style. However, the same is true of many contest judges, agents, and publishers. This second group is not required to explain what they seek and sometimes cannot even do it. A teacher, however, should be able to. When I taught language arts, I used one rubric for content/organization, and another for spelling, grammar/usage. When students made these second kinds of errors I underlined them and asked the student to figure out what was wrong. However, telling students how to create good content was more difficult.

Another person asked which books would be half of their current size if the author had better grammar. I cringed at this blatant attempt to absorb writing style into grammar. Then, I crafted an answer (not in my typical style).

“There would not be any books half their size if the author had better grammar, because correcting grammar rarely reduces the amount of words, and sometimes it adds them. Correct grammar is using the parts of language—nouns, verbs, etc. appropriately as determined by the majority of the educated speakers. In the case of French, it is determined by an actual institution, “l’Académie Française.”

I recall when we used to differentiate between the terms grammar and usage. Grammar referred to the rules and usage referred to whether or not rules were applied. This question implies that you assume grammar is the same as style.

In my answer, I have digressed, giving you a lot more information than you probably ever wanted. But, this is not a matter of poor use of grammar. This is a matter of style, which is very subjective. When correcting grammar, I make sure that all the cases for the nouns and verbs match, that words are spelled correctly, and that punctuation is appropriate. There is more to grammatical editing than these things. However, this kind of editing does not mean chunking out words because I feel they are extraneous. That is what I do when editing the style of writing.”

As writers who judge and critique we should remember that style and content are subjective. We use our own criteria for assessing these, and a book that teaches grammar does not contain them. We can make suggestions for improving style and content, but these are never rules.

Posted in Educational trends, Teaching writing skills, The writer's voice, Writer's resource | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The nature of an epic

Before “epic” became a name used by companies to suggest their fame, it was a type of  poem. A long one describing the exploits of heroes and often involving the rise of a nation. The poetic meter made memorization of this kind of oral history easier. Because creating new epics in literature has come into vogue, it would be good to revisit the nature of an epic.

Writers tend to look at the external aspects of a legend when creating them. Epics occur in far away places, in the distant past and use a language that sounds ancient. So, authors attempting to write epic novels sometimes fill them with dramatic landscapes and archaic words. They may create  mountains so tall that the summits are perpetually in twilight or deep caves with holes to glimpse down on the glow of magnum below. They may repeat ancient words for places, calling the sea Mare Nostrum or giving place names with a primaeval ring. But, using poetic description and archaic language does not make the work an epic.

But what makes an epic is the content of the story. The main character does not initially see the adventure as leading towards their fame but as a nuisance that they must deal with. In the example of Odysseus, this local chieftain was plowing his fields when called to join the forces against Troy. He tried to feign insanity rather than join the expedition. But, his ruse was uncovered. Another key to the content of epics is found in the Arthurian legend. As a child Arthur is raised far from the castle, working as a servant and assuming he is a nobody. Heroes in an epic often have no idea who they really are.

Literary epics also repeat the situations of Joseph and Moses (described in the Bible and the Torah). Each of these men knew their background. However, both were rejected, one was sold into slavery and then imprisoned after a false accusation. The other fled to live as a menial shepherd after his people turned on him and he didn’t want to return to them. These trials served a purpose. The hero of an epic must learn humility before becoming a leader. Otherwise the hero may succumb to the same conceit and arrogance exhibited by the powers which need to be defeated.

The author builds up the epic nature of the story through events in the plot rather than the type of language used to write it. Heroes face their foes looking as if they are going to get crushed. Their might and wisdom remain unknown until it is tested. The growth required of the person who will become the hero takes time to build, which is why epics often span decades.

What creates an epic is the distance between the low stature of the protagonist and the prowess of the antagonist pitted against them. The might of the enemy makes the story, not the language, not the setting, nor the apparent strength of the hero. Because when the story begins, the hero often has none.

Posted in Characters, Literature, Trends in books, Writer's resource | Leave a comment

Traveling towards the novel

Story tellers usually start small. I did this with little sketches referred to as flash fictions, often under 500 words. I won money in contests and published some of these. I began receiving the response, ‘this intrigues me but I need to read more of the story.” So, I added detail and created more of a set up for the final twist.. This moved my work into the 4000 to 5000 word short story category. Then, some stories burst the expected maximum of 7500 words. But, I still wasn’t ready to tackle the full length novel.

When reading a short novel entitled Shizuko’s Daughter by Kyoko Mori, I noted that each chapter resembled its own short story. These were not thrilling stories, but ones that gained my interest as I saw the secrets of a family uncovered. First there was the wife who committed suicide, then the daughter who silently mourned her, followed by the husband who was unsuccessful in hiding his mistress, and finally the mistress who grew miserable after becoming his new wife. In vain she attempted to eradicate every remnant of the prior wife. Of course, the first wife’s daughter still remained, and this child grew stronger, leaving her family and learning that she could risk loving someone as her mother did. I begin to sense that these secrets might be the same as people I knew in my own life.

The difficulty in moving to the novel could be spanned by a series of connected short stories. However, this could not be a collection of incongruent tales. The stories had to deal with the same characters, move in a chronological sequence, and achieve a goal–the resolution of the main problem.

When novels were published in periodicals a chapter at a time (think Dickens and Twain), the author had to know the eventual direction that the plot would take. Most of the time, the ending was already set up before the story was pitched to the magazine. However, after the major conflict appeared, successive chapters might weave in and out of different characters’ lives. These could be entertaining on a weekly basis. But, if a person binge read all of the periodicals, this meandering technique becomes frustrating, if not downright irritating.

So how does one transition from writing the arc of a short story to writing the arc of a novel ?

The readers need to see the protagonist’s normal world and the conflict arising early in the novel, just as in the short story. Then, the protagonist reacts to a rising crisis and makes a choice that reveals an important trait in the novel. This kind of character growth may never exist in the short story. Also, the crisis is not a single one in the novel; it is introduced as small problems that continue to grow with each chapter. As the novel progresses there are waves of relief and increased tension. The major problem expands until the protagonist hits a point of no return, followed by complications and a descent into the depths. The protagonist must arise from the bottom to reach the final goal. Also, the novel has a concluding chapter, or two, describing what happens after this.

With each of these steps determined, creating chapters in short story form to piece together a novel is still not easy. But stick with it; the journey for the main character is also a fulfilling one for the author.

Posted in Literature, plot, Writer's resource | Tagged , , | Leave a comment