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And the prize goes to… January 1, 2011

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In the grand tradition of the new year, I’ve made a resolution to write more for my blog and wordpress has handed me another very nice tool called “postaday” where they give you subjects to muse about in your next blog. The one today was “who deserves more credit than they get?”

That’s a tough one, but I think that since this is a writing blog, the people who I want to acknowledge are the authors who are masters of networking, representative of public demand, and who other, snootier authors might call sacrificing of their artistic abilities.

Yes, you might have guessed it already but I’ll give you a hint: they’re romance authors. I know, everyone makes fun of them, calling their books trash, or chick lit (which always reminds me of the colorful gum). But really, we should all use those ephitets fondly because your typical, everyday romance author taps into the most profitable market in the literary world everytime she (or maybe he) publishes one of those trashy novels/novellas.

And who among us (literary snobs included) hasn’t devoured the latest Harlequin book now and again, or sat down with another Meg Cabot novel in a discreet corner of the library? Because fantasy sensations such as J.K. Rowling come only once every few years, if one sets out to live up to her publishing success in the fantasy world, one might be very dissapointed. But, on the other hand, if a writer wanted to publish their romance novel, they have at their fingertips a vast, growing market where (unlike what is commonly thought). Yes, Stephanie Myers is just one example. Her books aren’t really fantasy as much as maudlin romance novels (although the marketing for her books has been riding the coattails of the fantasy boom).

Romance authors really should get more credit than they deserve. As an English major, I know that I’m going out on a limb when I say that marketing is everything in the book world. And, as a parting thought, most of the great classics that we study now were also labelled as popular fiction, sometimes read on the sly (aka brown paper bagging), and generally were thought trashy in their day due to the mass marketing, publicity, and appeasing the public demand for sensation.

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NaNoWriMo saga: Day 5 November 5, 2010

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Apo Hsu and the NTNU Symphony Orchestra (Natio...

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I have to say that after a rocky start and my total unwillingness to type up anything today, I’m feeling good about my novel for the first time. After a few days of pushing prose and man-handling plotline, my novel is starting to take off and my characters are falling into place.

Well, I thought that I had to add a natural disaster to get my story cooking, but the characters all did it by themselves…sort of. My heroine has just met a mysterious CIA agent while attempting to steal a mysterious package from the basement of a concert hall for a loan shark. And now she’s being taken in for questioning.

And…the best part is yet to come! A few years ago, I got really close to making the final word count. And in that novel, I added in a boring bit (boring to anyone except me) about a philosophy conference. In this novel, I plan to write in a professorial debate on Darwinian theory. It’s a good way to boost your wordcount, it gives your characters a break from running around (and your readers with them), and it’s a good way to “get on your hobby horse” (as they say in the UK). 

And, of course, I add a few things that catch my eye in the news. 

How to Make Easy Money: 8,552 words and counting…

NaNoWriMo Saga: Days 3 and 4 November 4, 2010

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I read somewhere, from some famous author (it was very likely Diana Wynne Jones) that sometimes the things you write about “come true” in a very surprising way. It can be big details or small details. While you’re in the thick of writing, you could see a person walking down the street that looks exactly like one of your characters, or something happens that ressembles part of your plot.

I know that there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for all of this:

  1. You’re more open-minded than usual
  2. Your sense of detail is heightened
  3. You’re thinking about your story so when you see something ressembling on it you notice it more
  4. Since you’re writing about things you know (presumably) you’re bound to sooner or later come across what you write

I know all that. But I also like to think of it as a sort of magical element. And a NaNoWriMo novel is doubly magical because you’re writing it too fast too think almost. And whatever comes out comes out. And there’s nothing you can do about it, except try to steer the plot in a reasonable direction. When the novel comes into its stride (which I hope will be soon) I intend to sit back and enjoy the ride.

To give you an example of the magical NaNoWriMo element, I have already seen things popping out of my novel. And I smile a little every time I notice it. My heroine has a beat-up white Camry. And no sooner do I add this, than what do I see but a beat-up white Camry on my morning commute! I write about the Boston clothing-type, which is dusty jeans and a jean jacket over a grey hoodie. And, lo and behold! while I’m waiting in line at a store, the man in front of me is wearing that exact style. And just as I’m typing up a character who is starting to ressemble a person I know who likes tennis, the real person pops up on my AIM chat.

Pretty spooky, but pretty cool all the same. So all you WriMos, get out there and notice the magic in the making 🙂

How to Make Easy Money: 5,389 words and counting…

To Mary Sue or Not to Mary Sue (that is the question) September 6, 2010

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I learned about this term from one of my friends who knows more about the world of fan fiction than I do. And as soon as she explained what it was, I knew that I had heard about it before (albeit not referred to as a “Mary Sue“). New writers are often accused of putting in Mary Sues into their new fiction. And a “new writer” can either be an adult who is publishing their first book, or a young adult writer who is taking a creative writing class or publishing their fiction. And even when they’re not accused of it directly, a reader or critic can always tell. Take Lauren Willig for example. Her books are wonderful, but of course there were the to-be-expected questions from the critics: “So, did you base your main character on yourself?” And when she protested that there was no connection, they pressed her and said something along the lines of “You have to admit, it’s a huge coincidence, isn’t it. You were a grad student at Harvard, your character is a grad student at Harvard…you do the math.” (On that note, Harvard seems to be a tenuous and overly publicized place to begin your creative writing career).

Putting yourself into your fiction is only natural to the beginning writer. With all those people and books telling you to “write what you know” who better do you know than yourself with all of your dreams, ambitions, quirks, and experiences? And the main criticisms of Mary Sue characters is that it is yourself, only a better you. It is a braver, prettier, smarter, more courageous you having all the adventures that you would want for this alpha-version of you. But there are problems with the alpha-you character:

  1.  the wish-fulfillment controversy
  2. the 2D character quandary
  3. the darling-of-the-characters stereotype
  4. and the invincibility paradox

 These are the obvious downfalls that a Mary Sue character can exhibit. However, a very clever writer (or a very normal writer) can avoid these traps. Some people do a splendid job of the Mary Sue. Take Elizabeth Kostova, for example. Her first novel, The Historian, had a main character who is a citizen without a country. Her father was a professor and they would travel from country to country. This has obvious parallels to Kostova’s own life. However, this doesn’t at all detract from the depth of her characters and the parallel, though present, does not dominate the novel. This is an example of someone writing fiction based on what they know, rather than writing their lives into their novels.

Many good writers of young adult fiction do this admirably. Of course, a writer of teen fiction wants to really identify with their audience which often means channeling their experiences as a teenager. However, when channeling, authors need to remember both their faults and their virtues in order to create a likable character. In The Princess Diaries series, Meg Cabot (who looked through her own diary to channel her character) portrays a teenage girl who is clumsy, unpopular, imperfect, and, as a result, utterly likable. The more problems they encounter and the more imperfect your character is, the more readers won’t try to accuse you of Mary Sue-ing. And no one likes a character who faints every other page but still manages to somehow attract every male character in the book (and I’m referring to Evelina here), or even Evelina‘s modern equivalent in terms of character–Twilight.

And although Mary Sues are most commonly attributed to and criticized of women/girls writing novels, no one has really noticed the trend in “Male” novels that is rampant even on today’s New York Times Bestseller List. The 40-something man who is either unattached or has a loving wife, a high sense of the moral/ethical, the courage to speak up against the “system”, and almost superhuman survival powers when the “system” tries to take revenge. I’m particularly referring to Tom Clancy, Ian Flemming, Robert Ludlum, and yes, even Dan Brown. I’m not saying that these books do not have value, but I am simply pointing out that male Mary Sues are ever-present in today’s literary world as well. Everyone can fall into this trap.

So, if you do Mary Sue, do it responsibly:

Surgeon General’s Warning: Mary Sue-ing may lead to two-dimensional characters and bad publicity.

As a general rule, a good writer should be able to create characters that are inherently interesting. And interesting people make mistakes, and are imperfect. I like to think about it in these terms: would you want to meet your characters, even the baddies? Would they make interesting dinner conversations? Or would they drive you up a wall?

Spot the Villain! September 2, 2010

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Warehouse 13

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So, you may be wondering what place TV shows have on a writing blog? Well, because, as I learned one cold January at Hampshire College, screenwriting takes just as much creativity and skill as novel-writing. And, quite frankly, uses the same techniques (which Jasper Fforde takes rather literally). So, in the latest episodes of one of my favorite shows–Warehouse 13–they have presented a plot-based quandary. They got rid of the “bad guy” from the last season and have now introduced a new villain–H.G. Wells. This H.G. Wells is portrayed a bit differently in that he’s a she and has been in “hibernation” in bronze until the 21st century when the old Warehouse 13 villain ceremoniously passed the torch off to her. However, these past couple of episodes, she’s become helpful and decent and the past episode seemed a bit transparent…

In fact, there was such a lack of a conflict that they had to put in a temporary villain who, I must say, was a bit of a cliché. The conflict was that the son of a Russian cold war contact went after a character’s whole extended family in Russia. He really looked like he was in the Russian mob and, actually, that would have been an interesting twist. It was what they seemed to imply in the previews–that the Russian mob had magical artifacts (a terrifying thought). However, it was only one quintessential made-for-movies Russian mob member with slicked back hair and no identifiable personality. And Artie’s family was in no real danger. The whole episode seemed like more of a plot device to kill off the nosy, inquisitive CIA characters.

And they brought back this kid who I thought they were going to bump off after two episodes. Well, apparently, they decided to have him back on one last episode as really being (drumroll please) in the witness protection program. Since the screenwriter so far has not let me down, I’m inclined to wait it out and see what the next episode brings. And for now, it will be fun to try to spot the villain!

If I were to predict what might happen, I would say that H.G. Wells would still act as the villan and slowly betray the organization from the inside out. And maybe the kid hacker who’s in the witness protection agency will be chased by a mob with magical artifacts and be forced to stay in the Warehouse, or at least pass through again. And there might also be trouble coming from higher up authorities as well. Really, this is a great excercise to test your plotting skills. Just take your favorite tv show and think up what plot twists you would put in.

Plot *sometimes* happens July 30, 2010

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I don’t know if many writers experience this but it is very difficult for me to both write compelling characters and a good plot-line. I’ve heard from different sources that all you need to do is choose whether your novel should be plot centered or character centered. It’s the difference between an Ian Flemming novel and an Ernest Hemingway short story. But shouldn’t your story really have both to make it a ripping read?

And it isn’t true that once you’ve fully developed your characters, the plot will fall into place. I’ve tried to find a good plot to put some of my better characters in but I keep starting and stopping. Maybe I’m trying too hard, maybe I just need to start writing and see where the story goes. But I know that a successful story takes at least a little planning. If you are writing and then suddenly hit a road block, you need to know at least a little of what’s going to happen at the end in order to overcome it.

And some writers have different strengths. Some can hatch fantastic plots (the Ian Flemmings and Dan Browns of the writing world) and others realistic characters (the Ernest Hemingways and Wilkie Collinses…though Wilkie Collins does an amazing job with both). What I’m thinking of doing is putting my ideas into two categories. 1) Plot ideas and 2) character sketches. Would it be easier to match the character to the plot separately, or would it be more consistent if  the two were created at the same time? In any case, there must be a writing excercise to strengthen the bond between character and plot. Sometimes plot happens naturally and sometimes it doesn’t.

A Fly on the 19th century Wall July 18, 2010

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George Eliot

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While looking over my last plinky prompt (the product of a burst of late night energy) I began to wonder what perspective I had been writing from. I was too tired to think up any names, so both of the characters remained nameless. However, I also wrote some of what the characters were thinking. This led me to ask the question: Where would you put this sort of dialogue in a novel?

An interesting thing that I’ve noticed about novels (and yes, the 19th century novels in particular) is that there is not always a consistent perspective. The author sometimes switches from third person limited to omniscient without another thought and sometimes even switches from first person to third person!

A dramatic example of this is in George Eliot‘s Mill on the Floss. She starts the novel with this totally ambiguous narrator in the first chapter. It’s written in the first person and someone can spend ages deciding if its Maggie, or her brother, or one of her two lovers. This is because the second chapter begins in the third person suddenly, and the reader asks the question: is the narrator really referring to his/herself in the third person? Weird. Where did the narrator go?

This is, of course, not playing by the rules. And while the students of modern literature scoff at straight-laced Victorian writing, these so-called conservative Victorians did, indeed, break all the rules of perspective that we now hold in high regard. When someone asks you what you wrote your story in, a budding novelist of today will tell you readily “Oh, third person limited” or maybe “First person, of course.” They probably won’t say: “Well, I started in third person omniscient, but then I switched to third person limited, and ended it in first person.”

Since the Victorian writers are no longer with us, the conventions/rules are that your perspective should be consistent. If you start changing it in the middle,  your readers will (supposedly) be confused and it shows amateurish writing…But not if you do it purposefully.

Let’s take the example above. How do you write a novel in third person omniscient, third person limited, AND first person?

Well, first you would start with a very sparse third person omniscient. Like a fly on the wall only with partial access to characters’ thoughts. Maybe it’s a dialogue between two henchmen:

Henchman 1: “If the boss says we take care of him, then we’d better take care of him.”

Henchman 2 shrugged as he took two guns out of the locked cabinet labeled “Cadbury Eggs.” It was time they changed the label to something classier, he just didn’t know what. He wasn’t looking forward to the job either. He had finally gotten tickets to the big game and now this would eaten into his schedule.

Henchman 2 nudged him and gestured to the fly on the fall, suspiciously listening to their conversation. “Hey, what’s that fly doing there?”

Then, it switches to third person limited surrounding the main character.

Joe Walker, successful businessman, philanthropist, and secret organizer of Project 51, sauntered across the street. He checked his watch demurely. He was already twenty minutes late to work thanks to a faulty alarm clock. But he didn’t worry about that too much seeing as he owned the company. His morning appointments would have to wait. As he waited at the next intersection, he saw two dubious characters lurking in front of his office building.

And finally, near the end of the novel, the first person narrative.

As Joe opened up his mailbox, a mysterious and very hefty letter fell out. Not wanting to stay long in the lobby of the apartment complex, Joe dashed up to his penthouse suite where he could read the letter without an attempt on his life. He had a feeling that this was going to be important and perhaps explain the events that had happened. It was from Sylvia, the maid at number 27 and a secret agent:

In these pages, I am enclosing the details of what happened on September 18th. If you are reading this, something has happened.

Then, there is a narrative from Sylvia’s perspective. Usually during this narrative, the reader forgets about Joe and for a few chapters it is essentially a first person narrative with dialogue, plot, and characters. Some of this account might even overlap with events that have already happened in Joe’s third person limited account.

This switching of perspectives always keeps a reader on their toes and is also a nice addition to a mystery novel, or even any novel. And if someone tells you that this is “just not done!” simply tell them: “You see it all the time in 19th century literature.”

A Rag-tag Team of Misfits July 13, 2010

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courtesy of amazon.com

 

I would just like to preface this post with the fact that I like spotting patterns. I love trends and seeing the similar in the seemingly dissimilar. In fact, the subject for my thesis arose out of this very habit. Too many times, I saw Jules Verne pitting his English characters against his French characters for it to just be a coincidence. And why was it that every single biographer called him a science fiction writer when the term did not even exist in the late 1800s?

Anyway, a little while ago, I amused myself by watching science fiction tv series…as procrastination from this same thesis. The pattern in the really good sci-fi series in space (and I’m talking about Firefly, Buck Rogers, and Farscape in particular) is that a rag-tag team of misfits outside of the law serve justice, protect the innocent, and have some pretty cool moves (not surprisingly, this also applies to westerns).

That, of course, is an easy comparison to spot. However, on closer inspection, you can see that even character roles are repeated. In these particular shows, the main character is a man with a high level of integrity and (in Buck Rogers and Farscape) is even a stranger in a strange land. Inevitably, there is the love triangle, the androgynous but brilliant sidekick (sometimes a robot, sometimes an alien), the gung-ho, trigger happy guy, and, of course, the character of the ship itself.

This pattern can also be seen in the early Star Wars movie (and by this point I think that I’ve revealed that I’m a huge geek). The rag-tag team in that example is made up of Han solo (the gung-ho trigger happy guy) the wookie (the androgynous, most alien-like one), and Luke Skywalker (debatably the main character with a high-level of integrity). And, of course, it exibits the classic love triangle with the only woman on board.

The point of this rant is that this set of patterns also occurs  in fiction (written fiction) with many different genres. Most commonly, I’m thinking of mystery. A really good mystery will throw out a red herring or two and just when you have your suspicions, the real culprit emerges–the bad guy becomes the good guy and the good guy becomes the bad guy. For me, at least, mystery is a very hard genre to write in because it takes a lot of planning ahead in novel structure–something I don’t do well. However, once you pick up on the patterns of the genre, it’s easy to have a starting point.

In later posts, I plan to look at the patterns of more genres. Please comment if you have a suggestion!

Fiction in a Flash July 9, 2010

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Ah ha! No sooner had I posted Plinky Prompts than I saw this post, also on how to use it to help the creative writing process. On the weekend (apparently when people have more time to write) Plinky users can choose to participate in the “Weekend Writing Challenges.” The first of which will be writing in the third person.

However, the post directs you to a flash fiction story, an example of what you could write in the third person. And flash fiction without a warning label would just be false advertising:

Warning: Flash fiction is not for the faint of heart. Entire story arc must be completed in a limited word count. 

While I agree that flash fiction would be very useful for this era of short/compressed messages, a writer has to put as much thought into it as a novel or short story (sometimes more). I first heard about this genre under the title “sudden fiction” and that’s an even better description. It’s speed dating for the world of fiction. The story starts out slowly but frantically as the writer adds as much subtle detail as possible. Imagine a swan swimming across the water gracefully while its feet are paddling under the surface. Then, the end pops up suddenly and the whole thing abruptly stops. If it’s good, the reader feels that the whole story was extremely clever without knowing quite what it was about.

I’m not sure if all flash fiction is written in the third person or if it could also work in the first person.

For more information on flash fiction, or sudden fiction, there is a wikipedia article on it.

Novel Writing 101 July 3, 2010

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I love novel analysis! Not “what do the eyeglasses represent in The Great Gatsby?” but “how does this author develop his/her character throughout the novel?” or “how does the novel reflect the contemporary society of the author?” This is perhaps a good interest to have when you’re an English major. And, of course, once that skill is developed (novel analysis is highly habit-forming) you’ll always be assessing the novel from a structural standpoint as well as for enjoyment.

And I’ve heard that this is good for novel-writing as well. Lots of reading and even more writing. However, I am also interested in the how-to novel-writing books that occupy the bookstore shelves in  the dozens (even hundreds). Everytime I walk past them, my eye is glued to the bindings in hopes of finding one that reveals the secret of good writing. Most of them are just not very useful, but a few of them are gems! And I will devote some posts to reviewing a few of the ones that I found not only helpful, but compelling.

The majority of posts in November will, of course, be dedicated to my efforts in the writing marathon: NaNoWriMo! However, posts outside of November will not only deal with my attempts at novel-writing (which might not be scintillating enough to post about) but will be fueling the other side of my writing hobby: looking at publishing trends and new authors.

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