Friday, September 10, 2010

Expanding Horizons with Local Writers

Tuesday night, I spent a fair portion of the evening surrounded by new friends and collogues – mostly writers in training. This made the second local writers group meeting I attended and the first with this particular organization. Without question, I could see an immediate difference between the two groups, despite the fact that every member of the first also attended the second.

I thought it might be beneficial to express my impressions, since I had never attended any form of local writer’s association until late last month – and given that I’ve been on this quest to publish a novel for long enough – it’s high time I should extend my reach beyond my own keyboard.

The first group, Panama City Writers’ Association, is a loose critique organization dedicated to discussing and reviewing whatever topics come up during the meeting itself (unless something is planned ahead of time). For the last 10 or 11 years, this group of writers gathers to talk about whatever is on their mind at the moment. Since this was the very first one-on-group meeting I ever attended, I really had no idea what to expect. After a bit of introduction time with the new guy (me), we spent a portion of time talking about everything from character development to the best way to grow oranges. The topic varied widely from writing to non-writing in a loose and (dare I say it) unorganized fashion. I suppose I anticipated more structure than this particular group offered. Though, the people were certainly friendly enough and more than willing to listen to my rambles about the latest setbacks with my WIP.

The second group, Gulf Coast Writers, is a very different organization of people. Run by a college professor and membered by established writers (some novels, some short stories, some articles), the session on Tuesday was divided into distinct moments of agenda. First the standard meet-and-greet, followed by a fairly good discussion about “books on writing” in which many members around the table presented their latest and favorite tomes on creating prose.

The remainder of the hour and a half session focused on critique of one and two page works from various attendees ranging widely in style and goal, from the beginnings of a short Halloween story to the query letter for a finished thriller novel. It’s had to say if they were willing to simply put up with my critiques or actually had a vested interest in my comments, but the atmosphere induced me to speak my mind - which was quite a shock for me since I’m more noted as a wallflower.

Through these groups, I learned of a local writer’s conference later this month. Although I doubt I will be able to attend due to previous engagements, I might have been able to arrange going to the one day seminar had I known about it months ago – something I would have learned if I were braver and adventurous enough to join these groups before now.

All in all, I’d have to say it has been an interesting experience to see other aspiring authors face-to-face from the local community - to know that I’m not a complete island on this ocean of the authoring adventure. I will most likely return to both of these groups and continue to do so for a time. I have much to learn and perhaps this will offer another avenue to educate myself. Perhaps I’ll even brave bringing in some of my own work for critique – now that’s a scary thought!

Q4U: Have you looked for and/or joined any local writer groups in your area? You might be surprised what you find out, if you’re willing to take the plunge.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Off Week

Well, as much as my loyal fans (both of you, LOL) will be disapointed, I haven't much to write this week.  Truth be told, that "real life thing" has been a bit of trouble over the past several days, and I haven't made much time for writing - including here, unfortunately.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Wild Centaur

It’s Wednesday! That means it’s time for another mythological monster. This week: the centaur.

Centaurs are a hybrid creature, a mix of human and equine anatomy. Early depictions of centaurs showed man-like forms with the hind quarters of a horse attached at the waste of the man. It’s no wonder that in later images, and in the most common modern view, this original form migrated to the body of a horse with a man’s torso attached at the equine withers, where the horse’s neck should be. This forms, from the front, a man-like image with the horse’s lower body representing what would be normal human legs.

Like many of the mythological creatures, the exact origin is unknown. The first accountings appear around the Bronze Age and continue through the Roman Empire period of Europe. Some scholars believe the idea of the centaur comes from a non-riding culture seeing men on horseback for the first time. There is some evidence to support this theory. Homer, the author of the Iliad and Odyssey poems, simply calls them “pheres” (or, “beasts”) which could indicate the mythological monster as easily as it could mean savage men riding on beasts. Pindar was the first known author to describe centaurs as an unquestionable combination of man and animal in a single form.

Stories range from poet to poet, but generally, the centaurs began life as decedents of the Greek gods. In one specific variation, Centaurus (the son of Ixion and Nephele - sun and rainclouds) mated with Magnesian mares to produce human/equine offspring while his brother, Lapithus, became the father of the Lapiths race of men.

The most famous story in Greek myth involving centaurs is the war between the half-men and the Lapiths people when the centaurs, on the day of the king’s wedding, made off with their human cousin’s women. The Lapiths would hardly stand by and let this happen, so the two warred with the centaurs losing the battle.

Female centaurs are found first in 4th century BC and are considerably less common than accounts of their male counterparts. Still, they have been found rarely in the poetic record, including Ovid, who mentions a centauress that commits suicide after her husband is killed in the Lapiths war.

Interestingly, the Lapiths tribe of Thessaly, who were the mythological kinsmen of the centaurs as shown above, was described to be the developer of horse-back riding within the fertile crescent of the Mediterranean. It’s said their horses were the descendents of the original centaurs.

In many stories, centaurs represent the untamed, wild spirit of man and animal unified into a single natural force. Sometimes, they are wise and teach mankind - such as Chiron, the great tutor of heroes such as Achilles, Jason, and Heracles. Other times they are bloodthirsty and crave battle, as in the account of the Lapiths war. They are sometimes seen as a metaphor of the struggle between the carnal mature of men against civilization.

One thing is certain. The centaur is a well known mythological creature in modern times. Not a fantasy reader alive doesn’t have an already slanted view of what this being looks like, from Harry Potter to Spell for Chameleon.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Finding a Character's Voice

“Sneakin', sneakin'! Hobbitsess always sssooo polite, yesss. Ehm..nice Hobbitsess. Smeagol brings them up ssecret ways, that nobody else can find. Tired he is, and thirsty he is and he guidesssess 'em and he searchesss the path..yess. And then they say: Sneak!” -- Gollum: Lord of the Rings
Each character in our story should be designed so they are memorable as possible. When I think of the multilayered elements that make up a unique and memorable character, the sound of their voice in dialogue always stands up for me to take notice. Gollum from Lord of the Rings, Hagrid from Harry Potter, Emperor Palapatine from Star Wars:  Each of these characters had interesting background stories and physical traits, but what really brings them to life is the unusual way they spoke, a combination of motivation, dialect, and vocabulary.

So, how do we bring that voice out onto the page and into each line of dialogue (and even their thoughts, if we write from their POV)?

One technique that could help get you into the head of a character is to write strictly from their POV. Not as part of the story itself, but as a separate exercise. By this I mean, take a black sheet of paper, get into the mindset of that character, and then start writing. Don’t stop until the page is full. Write a letter to the character’s mother; write an editorial essay as if they were in school; scribble a journal entry that fills a page with the character’s words. Write whatever they are thinking and feeling in their own voice. Don’t stop to ponder their words, just let the characters thoughts become your own and guide your pen.

If you have characters that sound similar, or even if you want to refine the more unique sound of your antagonist, give this technique a try and see what comes of it. You might be surprised.

Keep writing!!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Fiendish Harpies

The harpy is a creature from Greek mythology that is shrouded somewhat in a mystery about their appearance. In some of the oldest depictions, the harpies and sirens were much alike - women with enormous wings. Later renderings show them as having the bodies of eagles or vultures and only the head remained female. Some variations even show harpies as having bird bodies and the heads and chest o women, exposing naked breasts.

Some images show beautiful faces and some horrifically ugly. Regardless, the all displayed a twisted sense of cruelty and no moral compass to speak of.

Regardless of their appearance, these were some nasty customers.

The story of Phineas

The most well know tale is that of Phineas, King of Thrace. Phineas had the gift of foresight, but Zeus (the lord of the Olympian gods) believed that Phineas revealed too much information. In punishment, Zeus blinded the man and put him on an island. The island held an incredible banquette of food that renewed itself each day.

That doesn’t sound all bad - vengeful god takes away one thing, but gives another, right? Umm... not quite. Every time Phineas tries to eat from the banquette, the harpies show up. They snatch the food right out of his hands before he ever has a chance to eat. In addition to such torture, the harpies then spoil the rest of the food as part of Phineas’ punishment.

This goes on for some time until the Greek hero Jason arrives on the island. Through his efforts, the harpies are run of to never bother Phineas again. In appreciation, Phineas uses his gifts warn Jason about the Symplegades, or clashing rocks, and how to pass them during the hero’s voyage.

This story shows not only the cruelty of the harpy, but from a fiction writing standpoint, we see the intricacy of one subplot impacting another in the grand scheme of things.

Other writings
  • There are many other stories of the harpies in Green myth, but most are fleeting cameo roles.
  • They tortured souls traveling to the vile planes of Tartarus (the Greek version of Hell - for lack of a better term).
  • They tortured the Trojans by stealing their food and starving their men.
  • In Dente’s depiction of Hell, harpies victimized the souls of those who committed suicide in the second ring of the inferno.
  • Surprisingly, there are a few cases, though not many, of harpies found on medieval coats-of-arms.
So, there you have it. The harpy - malevolence at its finest.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Quote for Today

I saw this on Kill Zone and thought it worth repeating here:

"If you want to write fiction, the best thing you can do is take two aspirins, lie down in a dark room, and wait for the feeling to pass. If the feeling persists, you probably ought to write a novel." – Lawrence Block

Source: Writing the Novel (1979, Writer's Digest Books)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Fleshing Out Characters

This week, I’d like to talk a little about how to bring characters to life, or in other words how to bring reality into characters.

Every character in our stories deserves the attention of a detailed background whether the lead or a minor personality. They have goals, ambitions, family, and other traits on top of what we normally think, such as eye color and height. Here is a list of the things I fill in for each of my characters. Some are more appropriate than others and I don’t do every single one for every single character. But I do enough to bring out that character’s personality.

In addition, I typically write anywhere from a paragraph to a full page on any given character before starting the story. This brings my mind up to date and helps cement that character before they ever speak a line of dialogue. My hope is that you’ll be able to use these ideas in breathing more life into your own.

External Traits
  • Name: Full name, Nickname
  • Place of Origin: City, town, state, country
  • Race: As applicable
  • Age: In the time scale of your story (years, moons, etc)
  • Sex: (Yes, No, and Sometimes are not the correct answers LOL)
  • General Appearance: height, weight, eye color, haircut (and how the character feel about it)
  • Distinguishing marks: What makes this character more easily recognized compared to the other characters in the story
  • Voice: Is it squeaky, robust, deep, giggly, etc.
  • Occupation: What they do for a living or for money
  • Personal Habits: Dress, manners, etc.

Internal Traits
  • Motives: What drives this character to act the way they do
  • Goals: What do they want (be very specific. World Peace is not a goal. Joining the Peace Corps to feed the hungry in Haiti is.
  • Vulnerabilities: What will cause the character to break down emotionally or physically?
  • Enneagram: As discussed in last week’s blog on personalities
  • Likes: Long walks on the beach, sunsets, ponies, etc. LOL
  • Passions: Name at least one thing the character feels strongly about and why
  • Dislikes: Turn offs, things they just can’t stand to be around
  • Quirks: Odd behavioral habits that are out of the norm for their society
  • Background: Here I write 1 page for a main character and a paragraph or two for a minor character

Character Thoughts
  • Attitude: Main outlook about people or events
  • Self Perception: What does the character believe is their major flaw? What is their major strength?
  • Other’s Perception: What does the character believe others think of them?
  • Parental Influence: How does the character view their parents?
  • Relationships: With love interests and/or other family members
  • School Life: Is the character educated? Where? How was their performance? What is there attitude toward schooling in general?
  • Free Time: Hobbies or personal passions that fill in disposable time
  • Places I've been: Favorite vacation locations, or places this character has been (good or bad) that sets them apart from the rest of the cast
  • Places I'd like to go: Here’s a chance to create some wish-lists for you character
  • People I know: Has the character ever met a famous person? Do they have special connections that other characters might not?

Author Thoughts
  • What do you really like about this character?
  • What do you really hate?
  • What do you plan to reveal about this character that no one else knows?
  • What will be this characters epiphany in the story and how will it change them?

This is certainly not a comprehensive list. Add your own traits, ideas, questions, character thoughts, and anything else you think is appropriate. It’s a lot of work; I won’t lie about that. But it’s worth every moment when the characters leap of the page.

Keep on writing!!

Q4U:  What other aspects of a character do you include when rounding them out?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Noble Griffin

Let’s continue our Wednesday “Mythological Monster Day” tradition, now in its second week. LOL

The Griffin (or griffon or gryphon) was a symbol of pride, elegance, and majesty for centuries. It’s described as a creature with the head of an eagle and body of a lion. In most versions the griffin also had the wings of an eagle. The front claws varied over the centuries with early versions shows as having lion paws and later variations with eagle talons. Ironically, by the around the 12th century, images of griffins once again showed the front claws as that of a lion. Because the lion is considered the lord of the land and the eagle the lord of the sky, the griffin was a very important symbol of power.

It’s hard to tell exactly where the legend of this creature comes from as most records are lost to time and spoken about in such detail over a millennial span. The earliest knows depictions of the griffin date back to the 15th century BC. Statues of griffins adorn important architectural structures and were used to guard treasure. In Europe, through the Renaissance period, nobleman used the griffin on their coats-of-arms and heraldry.

According to legend, a griffin's claw was believed to have medicinal properties and its feathers could restore sight to the blind. Claws fashioned into goblets (which were typically made from antelope horns) and griffin eggs (usually ostrich eggs) were considered highly prized in the medieval courts of Europe.

The symbolism of the griffin can also be found in Christianity. The medieval Catholic Church saw the griffin as representative of Jesus. Born of earth (lion) and divinity (eagle), griffin images are found on many of the cathedrals still standing today.

This odd combination of fierce beast and noble creature has sparked the imagination for thousands of years. Let it inspire you to create fantastic worlds.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ten Things to Avoid

Here's a blog I found interesting:  Ten things not to do if you want to get published on Kill Zone by Kathryn Lilley.

For those who are a bit savvier on the publishing business, these may not be profound statements. But, if you're still in the learning phase, or even think you have room to grow (which should be everyone), have a look.

Kill Zone is a blog written by a collection of well published suspense and thriller authors. The blog is typically full of wit and great information. The best part, in my opinion, is the comments found with each post. Not all of these authors agree when one of them goes on a tyrate about something that annoys them in the publishing and story writing universe. The internal banter can sometimes make this a blog worth reading.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Time off work -- Time to go to work

After a rather rough week at my 8-5 job, It's time to take a few days off. The plan is to do a bit of writing and a bit of housework and a bit of anything else my wife comes up with on her "honey do" list.

This is a time for reflection. I’ll likely spend the greater part of the next three days working either on my blog or novel. Either way, one of two things will happen. I’ll either spend the whole time glued to my computer or I won’t touch the magic box for 72 hours. Too early to tell yet, so we’ll have to wait and see what happens.

Tomorrow, I’m planning to attend a meeting with a local writer’s club. I’ve never been around other aspiring authors face-to-face, so it’s a little nerve wracking for one like me who’s naturally filled with social angst. My plan of attack? Don’t bring anything more than a black notebook with me. LOL. Despite what my critique critics say, I have a great deal of self doubt about the quality of my work (hence the anxiety). If I bring nothing with me, I don’t have to share. :D A bit of cheating, however it’s the only way I’ll make it through, I think... Well, that and a Xanax. LOL

Friday, August 13, 2010

Multiple Personalities

Today marks one month of Write Point of View.  To celebrate, let’s do something different this week.

I’ve been reading Dialogue: Techniques and exercises for crafting effective dialogue by Gloria Kempton. Though I can’t say this book will change your life forever, she did bring up a few things the sparked ideas.

One in particular centers on the principal of finding a character’s voice. This is something I personally struggle with in many respects. After spending 75,000 words with the same characters, they seem to fall into one of two camps. Either they have become distinct voices that I can use during revision and thereby create a unique personality. Or, they all start to sound alike - speech patterns, vocabulary, etc. This especially rings true when their motives and backgrounds are similar.

So for today’s blog, I thought I’d explore some specific personality traits that can help bring life to your characters. Real people whether good natured friends, neighbors down the street, or perfect strangers have certain personality traits that are hard to mask. This is brought even more to the forefront in fiction, where we try to bring a hint of melodrama into dialogue. After all, who wants to read a boring book about boring people, right?

Quote from The Enneagram Made Easy by Renee Baron and Elizabeth Wagele:

The Enneagram is a study of the nine basic types of people. It explains why we behave the way we do, and it points to specific directions for individual growth. It is an important too for improving relationships with family, friends, and co-workers.
The roots of the Enneagram go back many centuries. Its exact origin in not known, but it is believed to have been taught orally in secret Sufi brotherhoods in the Middle East. The Russian mystical teacher G. I. Gurdjieff introduced it to Europe in the 1920s, and it arrived in the United States in the 1960s.
To paraphrase, the Enneagram personalities are a classification system we can harness to develop better characters through more realistic and diverse motives. I’ll let you do your own reading further into this study, but for now, I’ll present the nine personalities of the Enneagram as a place to start.

Footnote:  On a side note, you may see/hear these personalities called by many diffeernt names - but they all generally mean the same thing.

#1 - The Reformer / Perfectionist

This personality type knows they are right and you are wrong. They do not do this out of malice or for posturing, necessarily. Typically, the reformer wants to help make you right by informing you that you’re wrong. I don’t mean to bring religion into this conversation, but religious zealots can fall into this group with the goal of enlightening others. In fiction, Hermione Granger of Harry Potter fame comes immediately to mind.

#2 - The Giver / Supporter

This person will give of themselves until it hurts. It doesn’t matter if they agree with what’s happening or not, they (for whatever reason) can’t stand to see other people wanting. The Giver is often taken advantage of, but it doesn’t stop them from wanting to provide whatever they can. When I think of the Giver, I often consider a battlefield nurse during the early days of the Red Cross. You might also find this personality in an abused housewife, who donates all of her love to an unworthy husband. What about the woman who watches their neighbor’s kids, even though thaty can’t stand the brats -- brings a cake to the birthday party they were invited to -- or loans money to help pay bills knowing full well they may never get it back. Givers are typically women. It’s been bred into today’s society. But, that doesn’t mean men can’t fall into this personality as well.

#3 - The Achiever / Motivator

Here’s someone that’s always on the go. They are motivated by their own brand of success and will do anything it takes to get there. I think of the young urban professional (YUPY) when this personality comes to light, always on the go, always something to do. Achievers keep their schedule book full and rarely have time for other things that might detour them from their goals. These are the movers and shakers and nothing is going to slow them down.

#4 - The Artist / Romantic

Oh, to be a drama queen! Artists range from unbound highs to depressing lows. They have unachievable goals and always look to something greater, but they rarely see themselves able to attain those goals. Artists make mountains out of molehills. Although they are full of creative ideas and warm up to people fairly well, these are the same folks who burst into tears at the drop of a hat, angrily shout at others before they can gain control of their words, and express terror before there’s anything to be afraid of.

#5 - The Observer / Thinker

The Observer is the quiet one -- the wallflower in the corner during their homecoming dance. This personality doesn’t say much. They prefer to watch from a distance and only interact when absolutely necessary. When they do finally speak, they tend to blurt to the point where they won’t shut up. :) These can be fun characters because they are highly introverted. If they are a POV character, we explore them more through internal rather than external dialogue. When they are not a POV character, it’s harder to let the reader know what’s going on in her mind -- but when she does finally express herself, watch out!

#6 - The Questioner / Loyalist

These people question everything: “What are you doing? What will the neighbors think? Do you think that outfit is appropriate for school? When are you going to take the trash out? Do you like giving me all this grief?”

This personality is often concerned about what other people think of them and their family. They are constantly concerned about being embarrassed and want nothing to happen that could set their neighbors against them. What’s fun about this personality is that they almost always throw questions into their dialogue -- typically replacing statements about how they feel with rhetorical questions.

#7 - The Adventurer / Generalist

The Adventurer just simply loves life. Everything takes on a happy tone. They see the good in all things. “She’s in a better place now.” “I love the rain. Everything smells so fresh afterward.” She’s usually working on one project or another or jet setting about on interesting travels to exotic places.

#8 - The Leader / Protector

The Leader is the one in command. They speak with authority and everyone else tends to listen. These people are constantly worried about looking stupid, so they will do anything in their power to prevent it. It doesn’t matter if people like them or not just so long as they don’t make a fool of themselves. They also have a strong drive to protect the ones they love. In fact, it’s been said that many criminals have a Leader personality and end up in trouble because of their own contrived sense of defending their loved ones.

#9 - The Peacemaker / Diplomat

The Peacemaker is a combination of several other personalities. Their primary focus is to keep people coming together, find compromises amongst them, and better society as a whole. The Peacemaker just wants to get along with everyone they come into contact with. Like the Giver, the Peacemaker, in her attempt to help everyone cope, will often forget about their own needs. Unlike the Giver, the Peacemaker does this because they are less worried about their own desires and can simply forget them.


So this is one way to find your character's voice.  Think about the characters in your fiction.  Chances are, they fall closely into one of the above categories.  What can you do to bring out more of that personality into your fiction through internal and external dialogue?  Consider bringing these traits to the surface for your reader's enjoyment.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


It's looking more and more like my story issues are deeper then I originally thought. The motivations of my characters is part of what's causing the problem. It's not as intense as it should be by this point in the story. The solution - up the ante, increase the tension, multiply the danger by a factor of two. You know what that means, right? A complete rework of the story going all the way back to the beginning. I'll still be able to use some of the center, but the beginning and end - complete rewrite. *sigh* Just wish it hadn't taken 80,000 words to figure this out.

It feels, at this point, I have wasted 4 months of work. In reality - if I'm willing to let myself admit it - is that I would not have realized the problem UNTIL I wrote 80,000 words. So it really means a strengthening of story from good to hopefully great. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Do I want to do it? Not a chance!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Lernean Hydra

I’m declaring Wednesday as “Mythical Monster Day.” The plan is (hold onto your tunic) to take a closer look at a different mythological monster every week. How profound is that? :)

Well, OK. So it’s not THAT unique an idea - but what the heck. This is my blog. :P

Let’ start things off with one of my favorite creatures from Greek Mythology - the Hydra.

Heracles (or Hercules to the Romans) was a great and tragic Greek hero. He was the son of Zeus (Lord of Olympus and the god of thunder) and a mortal woman named Alcmena. Zeus’ wife Hera, furious at her husband’s infidelity, set about to destroy the half-god from the moment of his birth. At each deadly encounter, Heracles managed to avoid death. When he reached adulthood, Hera (goddess of women and marriage) found her chance. She put madness into Heracles’ head that resulted in him killing his own children. To repent for the crime, Heracles set off to complete a series of tasks commonly called “The Labors of Heracles.” The second of these labors was to kill the Lernean Hydra.

Stories vary depending on the author and time period, so here I’ll recount my favorite version.

The Hydra was a reptilian beast, serpentine in nature, with nine heads and a venomous bite. To make the matter more complicated, one of the heads was immortal. To lure the creature out of hiding, Heracles shot flaming arrows into the beast’s lair. Once exposed, he battled with the monster in hand to head combat. Some variations indicate the central head spewed fire, which would have certainly complicated matters.

Like any good mythological story, there are so many variations, it’s hard to keep track. Some stories make this monster as big as a house. Others depict is as little more than a dog-size reptile. Regardless of its physical size, this thing was lethal.

As Heracles severed each head from the monster’s body, his horror multiplied. For each head killed, two grew back in its place. This symbolized the hopelessness of his task and the increasing likelihood of the hero’s death. Talk about upping the ante of a conflict! He eventually discovered a solution. As he removed each head with his sword, he used a flaming brand to cauterize the wound. This prevented the head from growing two more anew. But, the deadly central head, which was immortal, could not be killed so easily. It’s unclear if Heracles severed the head and then buried it beneath a bolder or if he buried the entire remaining monster. But, what we do know is that this was one tough mythological monster.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What to Ask an Agent

What do you say to an agent when you finally get "The Call?" Find out bellow!
For anyone who missed yesterday's post by Rachelle Gardner, here's a link:
What to Ask an Agent

Rachelle is always full of great information.  If you're not already a follower, I highly recomend becoming one.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Time to Rearange

Ah... The trials and tribulations of the ever persistent need for perfection.
Note to self:
Don’t forget to move scene A to section B and rearrange the details from scene C to make them all fit together seamlessly.
This week’s personal writing note is all about rearranging my plot to make it stronger. I initially set out to write the several thousand words needed to complete the chapter I’m working on only to discover at the end, it didn’t really work well. This is a case where I didn’t realize it at first. I was too close - focusing on the narration of the moment without taking the chapter as a whole into account. Event A follows event B follows event C. All looked great on the sentence level.

Then I made the necessary mistake of reading the chapter from the beginning. The scenes bounced from one event to the next without consideration of the flow between them. Most importantly, I found that the last two scenes - highly important to the overall plot - didn’t fit next to each other. They need more space - more time for the reader to absorb one moment before the next will make any sense.

So after that lovely round of babbling, I find I need to rearrange the scenes to make them work. That means going through everything with a fine toothed comb - extracting details, shifting them to rework various plot points - adjusting motivations as required - then seeing what happens.

Q4U - Ever had to rearrange your plot to make it work? What problems and issues did you not expect while doing so?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Building Realistic Worlds - Part IV

The Devil's in the Details

For fiction, we clearly do not have time to explore the endless nuances of a created world. There are only just so many pages of text to use when transporting our reader from their ordinary, mundane lives into a world filled with magical robots, or fire breathing elves, or whatever other amazing thing you’ve stuck in your head. We still have to tell the actual story somewhere in there. Knowing what details are noteworthy enough to put on page and which should be left in your stacks of notes is too big a subject for today’s article.

For the time being, I’m going to cheat a little and direct you to another site that will help you flesh out your world in ways you may not have thought possible. In August 2009, Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) published an article (really a series of questions) intended to make you think about your world. This thought provoking list brings important details, big and small, into center stage.

Here’s a sample copied directly from the article:
  • How long have there been people on this world? Did they evolve, or did they migrate from somewhere/when else?
  • Are there non-human inhabitants of this planet (elves, dwarves, aliens)? If so, how numerous? How openly present? What areas do they occupy?
  • How do differences from Earth (multiple suns, moons, etc.) affect the climate in various areas?
  • How much conflict has been or might be caused by these imbalances in resources? How much active, peaceful trade?
  • Is magic legal here? All magic, or only some types? Do laws vary widely from country to country, or is the attitude generally similar?
  • What does this country import? Export? How important is trade to the economy? How is currency exchange handled, and by whom? What is the system of coinage, and who mints it?
  • What eating utensils are used, if any? Forks, eating knife, spoons, chopsticks?
  • What things, while edible, are never eaten (what’s not kosher)? Why? Are some common human foods poisonous to dwarves or elves (or vice versa)?
  • How do gestures and body language differ between countries? Between species? Are there things that don’t matter in one area that are mortal insults in another (eating with the left hand, etc.)?
  • What will people swear a binding oath by? What do people use as curse words?
  • What are the social taboos — what things are “not done,” like wearing a bathing suit to the office? What things are not talked about? What would happen if someone did? How do these taboos vary among the different races?Is population shifting from rural to urban, south to north, mountains to coast, etc.? Why — invasion, plague, gold rush, job opportunities, etc.? What effects has this had on the places being left? The places gaining people?
  • What do people at various levels of society do for fun?
  • How many people usually live in a typical house? How large is a typical house?
  • Are cities generally laid out on a square-grid system of streets, or do they just grow? How wide are the streets and alleys?
  • How are farming/food-producing areas divided up between humans/nonhumans? What kinds of conflicts are likely to result? (Example: Expanding human farms encroaching on a forest that dragons or werewolves use for hunting.)
  • What is the level of literacy in the general population? Is literacy considered a useful/necessary skill for nobility, or something only scribes/clerks/wimps/bourgeoisie need? How common are books? How are they produced?
  • Which days are general holidays or festival times? What do they celebrate? Are there any that are only celebrated in particular countries, cities, or regions?

The list goes on and on! I highly encourage you to check out the full article for yourself. If you can answer a significant number of these questions already, then you’re well on your way to master world building. If not, then this should give you something to think about.

Build safe and dream big!
Composite image of the Earth at night.

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Monday, August 2, 2010

Press On or Fall Back

No hurtle is insurmountable, or so it’s said. Today, I muse about the importance of having “critique buddies.” If we show our work to anyone and they say “that’s nice” then we have been critiqued. Those simple words may not convey much enlightenment, but it still counts to a point. What I really want to talk about today is having someone that can be overtly honest with you about your craft and story.

For the past few months, I’ve worked at a feverish pace. Originally, my goal was to complete the first draft of my WIP by the end of July. Then, I pushed it back to the end of August. Now, I’m thinking Christmas is sounding really good. Why?

Well, life gets in the way sometimes, but more importantly, I found a hole in my story. I had relied too much on coincidence (IMHO) to bring the characters into the climactically emotional ending. Not wanting to be one for cliché (any more than necessary), it’s forced me to rethink the ending of my novel – or more precisely how the characters move from the middle to the end – the all important end of the second act.

Would things happen the way I originally envisioned so many months ago? Some of the original outline still rings true, some does not. For example, I removed one of the lead characters, so that changes the dynamics of the ending. The motivations of specific characters are slightly different than I had expected – usually more layered and complex than intended.

This brings me to a point where I have two choices: Leave what’s come before and forge a new, more self-motivated finale with the characters as they are OR go back and change their motivations to reach the end as I originally wanted them.

Ultimately, it came down to a decision which could go either way. Both options would be good, but “there can be only one.”

I have muddled around and wrestled with this issue for a couple of days, now. What finally brings me out of this “writer’s block” situation is the insight that only a critique buddy could offer. I’m lucky enough to have a couple such friends. Through hours of mulling over the possibilities this weekend and what’s come in the story before this point, they’ve given me a new direction that works much better than the original.

Will this change the end of the story? No. In fact, I’ll be back on track with the original outline in a few thousand words. But those words lead to the end of the second act and beginning of the all important climax. It’s slow going to ensure every critical detail is remembered while the tension builds for the final showdown.

Q4U: Do you have someone who’s honest enough to tell you when the story’s not working? Are you that person for someone else? Does it strengthen your story or just slow you down?

Friday, July 30, 2010

Building Realistic Worlds – Part III

The Influence of Government

Our characters do not live their lives in a vacuum. One thing that influences all inhabitants of any world (including our own) is government in its wide verity of forms and functions. Today, I’d like to discuss the value of this often forgotten aspect of character life as it relate to your fiction.

Some stories center around the politics of government. Dune comes to mind (as it has in previous examples). The political landscape is at the heart of Herbert’s stories. But, most characters in our fiction are not part of the ruling body. They are subjects of it. Even without the character’s direct involvement, the governments that control and lead the masses can profoundly impact the way a character views his world. A lowly thief feels the pinch of hardened constables. South-seas pirates seek the environs of an anarchist hideaway far from the prying eyes of the East India Trading Company. The protagonist wants for something more in life but is held back by his caste/station. The list goes on and on.

Government has two sides, those who support its current form and those who oppose it. Most citizens fall in-between these extremes to varying degrees. It’s up to us as we create our characters and our worlds to consider the political landscape and how this affects our characters motivations.

Each society within the story has a form of government, whether the ruling party or a secret cult. Someone must be in charge, and someone will oppose them. It’s the nature of the beast that government creates conflict – and a perfect opportunity to bring that conflict into your story. Most governments, and those who control or benefit from them, oppose change. Many people who feel trod on by their government reject the ideals and fight back (subtly or openly).

Here I’ve given a list of governmental forms. When creating a society for your story, this may give you a starting point for the complexities that are possible. As an example, for my current WIP, I chose at random, since the main character would not be directly part of the government. I let fate decide the forms of government for each major society in my fantasy story. For one, I even randomly selected two (Matriartical and Magocracy) to create a country controlled by female mages. There are endless possibilities… this is just a starting point and a place to gather ideas.

This list is not all inclusive and the specific forms of government are not mutually exclusive. There are, of course, many subtleties and sub-sects of governmental forms. Often there is cross-over of power where more than one “pure” government is merged with another to create something entirely unique.

I highly encourage you to look further into any of these that interest you. The Internet is full of information! For now:

Click here to explore the list of government possibilities.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Farewell, Dear Friend

This week I had to make a very difficult decision. One of the main characters in my WIP is not living up to the expectations I had for him. His was a grand story filled with self doubt and pity culminating in an action filled scene of heart pounding purple prose.

I have only one small issue. His story is part of the theme, not part of the plot. And so, his grand subplot adventure has come to a halt. My word budget simply isn’t large enough to squeeze him in without diluting the rest of the story or telling his emotional tale with half the words missing.

So farewell, dear friend. May we meet in another book, where I can devote the time you deserve – to tell your story in your own words – to be the man whom you are meant to be.

Q4U:  Have you ever deleted a character from your story?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Building Realistic Worlds - Part II

Grounded Imagination
In last week’s blog, I discussed the merits of using reality as a basis for constructing fantasy worlds. We took a quick look at several memorable story worlds and how the authors used realistic, though far from mundane, details to ground their readers in fact. This week, we’ll look closer at some of the imaginary creations from two of these authors.

I also discussed the “5 whys” concept of drilling down into detail. This technique is used in the corporate world when determining the root cause of problems in order to formulate solutions that will nip complicated setbacks in the bud. It applies equally well in many aspects of fiction from building unique and richly layered worlds to character creation to developing plot twists. Continue to ask “why” and you will discover things about your story that you never knew were in there.

One thing I thought noteworthy: Terry Ervin, author of Flank Hawk, was kind enough to point out our efforts when creating this kind of depth are often never represented on the page. So WHY go through all the trouble? As we write, many subtle details come out in the story as subtext. To put it simply, subtext is the words used to portray a theme or idea in a passage without directly stating it. Subtext is used to create mood, reveal motivation, hint at mystery clues, foreshadow upcoming plot events, and a host of other things. It really is a topic of its own and we need to stay focused. But, my point is that subtext, the unwritten words, can be strongly influenced by what we already know about a subject - in this case, the subtle details of our story world. I highly recommend Make a Scene by Jordan Rosenfeld for some good examples of this technique. Although the book covers much more than that, the author’s explanation of the subject will initiate you into the delicate art of subtext.

Impossible Worms

In Dune, Herbert’s world of Arrakis is a lifeless, barren world. Nearly every living thing on the planet was brought there by space craft from other worlds over countless generations. Arrakis cannot generally support life because of its arid conditions. “Never a drop of rain on Arrakis.”

The only famous indigenous life of note? Giant sandworms, as much as 400 meters long, endlessly roam the desert where nothing else grown. What a fantastic and wonderful imagination! But how do the sandworms survive? Realistically, a predatory creature of such magnitude must feed in tremendous quantities. So how then do they live in the middle of nowhere and not prey enough in sight to power their massive bodies?

So much time is dedicated into this subject throughout the Dune series (a little at a time) that it would be unfair for me to spend the entire article on the matter to the exclusion of our other example author.

To keep this brief, sandworms survive by eating their young - sort of. Cannibalistic? Perhaps. But the system seems to work fairly well. Sandworms are born, if you can call it that, as billions of tiny microorganisms called sand plankton. How sand plankton are created is never directly stated (that I can remember). These simple celled creatures are consumed by the hundreds of thousands in a single feeding. Those that survive slowly grow to a stage called a sand trout. The sand trout are basically large amoeba. At this stage in their lifecycle, the sandworms are no longer attracted to them as a food source because trout bodies contain more moisture than the worms can comfortably tolerate. Some die and those that don’t go deep underground where they slowly transform, over several years, into tiny (3 meter long) sandworms. The process continues indefinitely.

What moisture the sandworms do need to survive is brought from the planet’s depths, far from the scorching sun, by these microorganisms and baby worms.

Herbert put allot of effort into just this one imaginary aspect of his books. It’s one of the most well known and most read sci-fi stories to date. The author’s hard work and attention to detail make this an incredibly memorable story in the minds of many readers. The series survives with several books published even after the author’s death.

If you’re curious on just how deeply these details go, take a look at the article on Sandworms (Dune).

Smegol’s Wretched Fate

Few characters from fantasy fiction are as memorable as Gollum. He is a creature of malice, mentally poisoned and tormented over the course of 500 years by his one precious possession of value, the Ring of Power - about which The Lord of the Rings centers. Tolkien’s details of Gollum varied from edition to edition of the story. It should be noted that the original Lord of the Rings was reworked for a subsequent publication, which gave the author more time to flesh out much of the missing details in the original story.

Gollum began his life as Smegol, slightly taller than a hobbit and living in a village near the edge of a stream. While on a fishing trip, Smegol discovers the ring and wants it desperately enough that he murders his friend to claim it. He’s driven out of his village and wanders until coming to rest in an underground cavern deep in the mountains. There he waits until the reader discovers him, centuries later. Though we don’t know precisely why, it’s assumed Smegol became ill from the ring’s poisoning effects. He develops a hacking cough that sounds like “gollum” and the name stuck.

So far, we’re forced to suspend our disbelief - magic is real, the ring can allow this creature to live so long, etc. But, Tolkien grounds this make-believe character with some interesting and realistic details.

Gollum’s skin is described as both pale green and sallow (light yellow) - the result of centuries without sunlight. His eyes have grown overly large, adapting to subterranean life. Most of his teeth have decayed or fallen out. (Actually, it’s surprising he has any teeth left at all, given that much time.) His stomach can no longer process “normal” food, and he is forced to live on a diet of raw meat. This last point actually becomes part of the story, because Gollum cannot eat the bread offered to him by Frodo and Sam, which builds tension. His arms and legs are inhumanly thin from lack of nourishing food and exercise since he never leaves his cave. His hair has fallen out save for a few wisps either due to illness or simple age.

Gollum’s transformation is more than just physical. After so many years in the dark, alone, he has lost a fair chunk of his mind. He talks to himself in second person plural (referring to himself as “we”). He doesn’t know how to relate to other people and often mumbles as if no one else is around, revealing his motives and plans. He’s described as rarely seen in good lighting, because he 1) doesn’t want to be seen and 2) doesn’t like the light.

There’s considerably more to this character and allot of time dedicated on the page for him. His outward appearance is a reflection of the madness that’s consumed him for centuries. Tolkien paints us a great picture of what this antagonist looks like, but rarely, does he say precisely why Gollum is the way he is. We just have to make assumptions about what the author’s intentions were during this character’s design phase.  This is an example of what Terry said last week.  By knowing the details, the "why" comes onto the page, sometimes without us even realizing it.

Can we say the same for our characters? Do we show a 10 foot tall ogre without ever thinking about why or how that creature could possibly be so tall? The challenges it faces? And why it thinks/acts the way it does? Robots must be built by someone. Dragons breathe fire, why? What makes one character a wizard and another a bumbling thief?

Just things to think about.
Q4U: What brings a character or place to life in your mind as a reader? What realistic clues does the author use to bring out such a reaction?

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Importance of Editing

I need to make a correction on my recent post, Building Realistic Worlds - Part 1.  Specifically, on the section regarding Split Infinity.  What actually made it to the post was my rough draft.  It's been a good number of years since I read that series and over time my mind became tainted with the notion that the planet where much of the action takes place is Earth's moon.

OK, so the reality is, in a later draft I had corrected this, the story take place on the planet Proton, which has very similar characteristics to our moon.  It's one of the reasons I remembered the story incorrectly in the first place.

Moreover, I failed to put the corrected version into the blog.  Rather than go back and update it post-mortem, I've decided this is a great opportunity to show my own error and emphasise the importance of editing what you write.  So, cheers to those who might have caught the mistake!  And to those that didn't, let me just say that the premise is the same, just the location is different.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Building Realistic Worlds - Part I

I thought it might be fun to begin discussing some of the many details, large and small, that go into creating fictional worlds. Authors of science fiction and fantasy continually strive to build multilayered depth into their worlds so that the setting, itself, becomes a character of the tale. Some story worlds are so profound, so memorable, that they become household names - even amongst people who have never read the book. Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Herbert’s Dune are two such worlds. Non-readers have heard less of these places, but they have heard of them.

So what makes a story world so memorable? That’s what we’re here to explore. In the upcoming weeks, we’ll delve deeper into the art of world building. You may find a nugget of truth in my ramblings, which I hope you can use as inspiration on your current project. Go forth and build worlds that are truly astonishing.

Reality vs. Imaginary

The setting in SF/F, whether a novel or short story, creates a sense of wonder in the reader. It is our objective, perhaps even our obligation, to transport the reader to a place other than the reality they know. Every rock and tree, every person and robot and dragon, every village and space ship - it’s all under our control. Creating an entire world from nothing to act as the backdrop of our stories is a daunting and endless task. It can be quite overwhelming. You start with blank canvas and build mountain and river, forest and town, one at a time until your world takes shape. When choosing a setting, you create realism by combining what truly exists and what is only imagined. It’s that slow build of layer upon layer, mixing real and imaginary, which breathes life into your worlds.

The Real

Real aspects ground the reader in something with which they are already familiar. An oasis in the middle of a desert usually has some forms of plant life around it. Trees tend to grow upright, reaching toward the sun. Ocean coastlines often have sandy beaches or rocky cliff faces where land and water meet. Rivers swell and flood with too much rain. These aspects (and a million others) create a sense of reality that the reader can grasp onto because they know these things subconsciously if not overtly. It makes logical sense to the reader.

If your characters travel over terrain, as often is the case with quest driven fantasies, ask yourself if the location mimics a real place. Allow yourself time to research similar places on Earth and add those aspects that are important into your fiction. Granted, we can’t write every single detail. The poor reader would quickly become board. Still, we seek to bring the reader along on a fantastic journey. Be sure to give them handrails to hold onto during the ride.

Fictional worlds that are truly memorable and stand up to the test of time share this grounded approach. However, just because they are realistic settings doesn’t make them any less fantastic. Here are a few examples.

  • In Dune, the entire planet of Arrakis is a desert wasteland where no rain ever falls. One of the unique features is the sky. With no rain, no open source of moisture, the sky is nearly black - day or night. There are no clouds, no fog, no light-blue heavens. It’s a memorable detail.
  • Lord of the Rings is known for the painstaking detail Tolkien put into the story. The valley that makes up Mordor, where Sauron the Deceiver builds his war machine, is dominated by an active volcano called Mt. Doom. The smog of toxic gas spewed by Mt. Doom settles to the valley floor with little wind to dissipate it.
  • Split Infinity takes Earth’s moon as it’s setting, at least in part. Anthony remembers those little realistic details in memorable ways. Not the least of which is that people on the moon still need to breath. They live under a huge dome - not profound until you consider it’s an entire city and the sheer immensity of the dome itself. None-the-less a realistic detail to make the story believable. Most of the inhabitants walk around completely nude - a byproduct of slaves not owning any possessions and the higher temperature under the dome (no atmosphere to filter the sun).
  • In Black Sun Rising, the world Friedman created is on the very edge of the Milky Way galaxy. It sits on the tip of a spiral arm as far from the galactic center as it possibly can be. Along with the sun and stars, there’s an additional celestial body in the sky. From so far away, the galactic core - tens of thousands of stars in a tight ball - hovers as an additional source of light. And some rare nights, the world is positioned just right and the sky is black and pointed into deep space - no stars, moons, or core - what the author calls “True Night.”
The Imagined

The meat and potatoes of SF/F is imagination, or so it’s thought by beginning writers. But even the fantastic must root itself in reality. We want to bring the reader along with us, but if the make believe is unbelievable, then the reader s lost. Everything in your world has its own reason for being. It has an origin, a life cycle, a geographic location, a logic that only you can define. Even if the trees on Jupiter are blue leaved and have purple poke-a-dots, they are still trees and must still have some form of nourishment to grow. What makes those trees grow?

With each imaginary aspect of your world, you can build reality by asking only one question, over and over again. “Why?” Remember playing that game as a child? I asked “why” so often that my mother started telling me the reason the sky was blue and grass didn’t grow on trees was “to make children ask questions.”

Here’s a simple exercise: Take part of your imaginary world, just one part. Let’s think about that purple tree. Ask yourself “why” five times, letting each answer lead to the next question.
  1. Why is the tree purple? Because it’s not really a tree. It’s a giant amoeba that only shapes itself like a tree.
  2. Why does it shape itself like a tree? To avoid predators and blend in with the forest.
  3. Why would predators be after it? Because the giant amoebas of Jupiter are the only source of some special mineral they need to survive. (Note: define mineral later)
  4. Why are the amoebas the only mineral source? Because the mineral is in the air and the amoebas are the only ones who can absorb and concentrate it into usable form.
  5. Why is a mineral in the air instead of in the ground? Perhaps a big meteor exploded millions of years ago in the atmosphere and Jupiter’s constant winds prevent the partials from settling onto its surface.
Wow, that’s allot of layers for some silly purple tree in the background. You could spend hours and hours on this exercise alone, examining each imaginary aspect of your story. Although that’s pretty time consuming, you should at least consider doing this for the important ones. Notice, too, I did not define “mineral.” Sometimes it’s enough to have a rough sketch of the world rather than all the specifics. If the mineral turns out to be important in the story, a definition of it should be forthcoming at a later date.
Building believable worlds is a fun and challenging activity. Next week, well take a look at how the authors above treated the imaginary aspects of their stories and what makes each one unique and memorable.
Until then, write on!
Q4U: What is your favorite part of creating your own story world? How do you bring reality into your story?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

To Blog or Not to Blog

That is the question.

I've decided that it's time to make my formerly unknown presence available to the world at large.  Although I have no high expectations of a crowd flocking to my doorstep nor hanging upon every word, I figured it can't hurt.  So where to begin?  Well as a story teller at heart, I suppose I should start at the beginning, run through the middle, and then stop.

I was born and raised in Detroit with my younger brother and sister.  Growing up in a Catholic school, complete with nuns, did one thing if it did nothing else.  I learned that hard work and dedication paid off.  And in case they didn't, I discovered the side of my head could be used to stop chalk dusted blackboard erasers when a certain teacher grew tired on my talking out of turn and hurled them across the classroom.

From that tender age, I wanted to be a writer, or at least a teller of stories.  So, it was no surprise to me that I carried this belief into adulthood.  Unfortunately, along the way I met life.  That old battle axe, ball and chain of fun and adventure, beat me down for a long time.  Her not-so-soft caress taught me to be complacent with what I had.  Even so, that was never good enough for me.

I started writing my first novel at the age of 14... and again at 19... and again at 25... and again at 37.  I had never written past a few thousand words.  A funny thing happened on the way to creating the Great American Novel.  You guessed it - life reared her ugly head again.  On April 4, 2010, I started once again drafting my brilliant work of staggering genius.  (I love that phrase from Randy Ingermanson.  If you have not read his blog, I highly recommend you do.)  I believed myself serious this time, but I still muddled through the pages as I'd always done, despite my best intentions.  Until.  On May 16, 2010, the head boss in my corporate office called the entire staff into a meeting where the CEO's crackling voice echoed through a poor phone connection into the office's PA system.  His announcement that our business center would be downsized by the end of the year brought a normally work happy environment to a dead stop.  On May 17, 2010, I committed myself to completing the novel I had started.

Since that time, I've clacked away on my keyboard and scribbled countless pages of notes and longhand story fragments.  A little at a time, I will complete my story and be proud to say I'm a successful writer.  Whether or not the world races to build up my ever growing ego is yet to be seen.  But regardless, there's a pride that only artists, writers, poets, and the like feel when their work is perfect in their own minds.  I'm looking forward to that moment in mine.

If you've happened here by luck or chance, feel free to leave a comment.  If I'm only doing this blog for my own amusement, well then, I'll be in great company.  Since time is a commodity that I rarely see, I suppose I'll begin with weekly posts centered on my journey as a writer and what I've learned during that week about the craft and business of writing.  Sounds like fun.  I can't wait to get started.