Archive for January, 2009

Tip of the Day – which was post on a day and writen with the tip of an ink pen so it qualifies.

45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters.

OMGosh where have you been my whole writing career. The book is a bit like Heroes & Heroines but with great concrete examples. This book is for your toolbox. Pull it out, use what you need, carefully put it back so you know where it is to use again. Anyone else read it?

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At Confusion this year I was on a panel talking about The Short Story. It was a great panel moderated by Jim Hines. With Mer Haskel, William Jones, and Cat Rambo as fellow panelist I was speaking way above my pay grade. The audience was attentive, polite and asked a lot of good questions. Really, nobody asked the “agent question.” That’s a pleasant step-up.

One question that usually comes up, and it did this time as well, is the question on originality. So let us tackle that one first.

Okay, off the bat, it’s all been done before. No, really. If you’re not seeing this it’s merely because you either aren’t reading enough or not able to dice out structures (plot, story, characters, etc) from the whole. Don’t worry, this is something you can learn how to do. It’s a reductionist kind of thinking, there are thousands of classes out there that can help. This is being able to see the trees from the forest. That doesn’t mean you can’t do something fresh. You should be, because the editors have read it all before.

How do you make something fresh? I’m glad you asked, Grasshopper. There are basically four ways to become “original” or “creative.”

1) Tell the story in your (or the character’s) voice. The first is the easiest (at its basic level) and something we’re already doing or should be doing. Do I need to find examples of this?

2) Closely related to #1 is to update/set the story in a different time/place. Stories, plots and characters are all products of their time. Shakespeare is often the victim of these changes and you can find a large percentage of his catalog updated and told for different times (Hamlet told as a WWII fable, West Side Story is essentially Romeo and Juliet, etc). Or just refresh the language usage (now it’s fashionable to not emphasis the iambic pentameter rhythm of the dialog). A subcategory of this is to change the set up of the story. Neil Gaiman does an excellent rip on Snow White called “Snow, Glass, Apples” and is told from the mother’s POV (see #5), making Snow an undead creature like a witch/vampire, and the Prince as a necrophiliac. Sounds horrible but it really is a good story.

3) The Mash-up. Taking two stories and flinging them at each other to see what happens. This is actually very effective when you can do it well. Sometimes it just dies, though. One major example of this that I can think of is The Princess Bride. (BTW, I love the new cover design of the DVD. It’s just fabulous. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Go to the store, grab the DVD, and then turn it upside down.) The frame part of the story (Grandfather telling his grandson a story showing his love) is a stock premise, the book/play within a book/play. The story he tells is a mash-up of Hind Horn and Sleeping Beauty (the second half of the story, after Beauty marries Charming and goes to live at his castle). Now, some character substitution happens (see #2 – the Ogre mother-in-law is played by the Prince himself, and the Woodsman is split between Fezzik, Inigo, and Vizzini), and some other stories are mixed in, but that’s the basic plot line.

Since I’m talking about it, usually the token of love in Hind Horn is listed as either a diamond or pearl ring (among other things, in The Princess Bride it’s the phrase, “As you wish”) more than likely the original was an opal which can lose it’s brilliance and luster.

4) Change the POV in the story. Gregory Maguire has practically made a career out of this. Cinderella is also a favorite of this technique, usually portraying Cindy in an unfavorable light.

While I gave my examples in the form of fairy tales, because it’s a literary tradition I’ve been studying lately, you can find this in all genres and mainstream literature. In conclusion, there is one basic story, “there’s this character and something happens.” Everything else is just being wordy.

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I was snorting derisively at the genre required time apart today. The snort happened in my head and the time apart/break up is often a part of romance novels. It goes like this: cute meet*, conflict that changes and builds over the middle, a semi-happy plateau where one or both know they are in love but haven’t told the other, black moment, the time apart where they suffer withdrawal and angst over life, then the patch and declaration of happily ever after love.

Often the break is a result of the black moment when it is revealed that one or the other had a seemingly insurmountable secret or betrayed the other person or lied. Or all three.

Top Gun – during the split Maverick becomes an instructor and they patch over a song on a jukebox.

You’ve Got Mail – during the split she closes the shop, they break with their perspective mates, they patch as friends and he reveals who he really is in the park.

While You Were Sleeping – black moment at the wedding, she then goes back to her old life, and he slides the ring through the coin slot.

Not a bad device. It builds the readers emotional investment so the HEA is even more heart wrenching and allows the character a chance to grow. For you Hero Journey fans this is the Death they suffer and are resurrected from.

So my scoff stemmed from my latest WIP. I don’t have a break up. He reveals all, she punches him and acts churlish for a few hours and then she makes him get over himself. She’s a go getter and knows what she wants. And since it’s a romantic paranormal suspense instead of a straight romance, I think this works. Other conflict carries the story and the true black moment comes later.

As I weighed weather this was true to character I scoffed about the break up. They aren’t realistic. I’ve never done that. Oh, wait I have. I broke up with my husband, then boyfriend, for logical reasons. Silly me. I spent a month in an emotional void. The only time I’ve been more numb was after my father’s death. With tears and snot streaming down my face I kissed him and we patched the next day. Love is messy. Been married eleven years.

So, geuss the break is realistic and powerful because it resonates with people. I’m not changing theĀ  WIP’s timeline but I’m going back to make those scenes even more riddled with angst.

* – first heard this term in the movie The Holiday. Great movie.

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Okay, first up the latest name I need to use somewhere, Jerico Higgenbottom.

No, really, isn’t that a cool name? And both the first and last name are real people’s names, they just don’t appear together (or at least I haven’t seen them together).

Secondly, I was once asked where I got the name of a certain character (the person asking had the same unusual last name, and given the “rightness” of the first name I’m sure they knew someone with that name). The last name was Waterdown, and it first came to me as an homage to Richard Adams’ Watership Down, but there’s also a Waterdown just down the road from Niagara Falls, which I’ve visited a few times so I’m sure I saw a road sign for it. Plus the name had a nice staid feeling about it, a plumpness and security I wanted to use in the story.

Thirdly, I’ve had characters that stubbornly refuse to cooperate unless I find their “true name” (“true names” in case you don’t know, have immense power in fairy and sympathetic magic). Once while writing a story I changed a secondary character’s name for story purposes, and that character took their little red ball and went home. Until I changed it back and then they started helping again. Having the character’s name correctly doesn’t stop me from writing a story, but it certainly helps having the right name. Currently the love interest in a story I’m writing only has a “working name” (like a “working title”). The name just doesn’t fit her. Right now she’s not on stage, yet. I know by the time she is I’ll need to know her name.

But that doesn’t help us in finding names, which is what authors normally get asked about. Well, I have several strategies.

First off is knowing a whole bunch of very diverse people. From them you can find names of cousins, other friends you don’t know, mothers, brothers, etc. Now, you shouldn’t lift a name wholesale, that would be wrong unless you’re intentionally making a Tuckerization. However you can extrapolate from what you know of your friends to make appropriate choices for family types and economic backgrounds.

Another strategy is to use the numerous Baby Names lists (just Google “Baby Names”). These lists are especially helpful if you’re trying to find an unusual name, one that has a certain meaning, or one that fits an ethno-type you wish to portray. What they normally won’t help you with is family names (although you can fake it) or relevancy (such as not many teens carry the name Ethel these days). If you know lots of people you can mitigate that issue by induction.

Still another way is to haunt graveyards. This is especially good if you’re writing a period piece and you have access to graves (hmm, I mean a grave site you can visit) from that general time period. Tombstones and markers are also good for other things that concern writing, especially if you know a little symbolism and the “language of the graves.” There’s an author with the name Storm Constantine. I’ve always loved it and wished I could use it, but it seemed to iconic. Until I discovered that name on a grave in Painesville, Ohio (late 1800’s).

I have another way, but it’s not going to help you all that much. For my day job I plate at least a hundred business cards a week. They are a constant stream of source material (and humor) for both names and business titles. My most favorite title, and one that I need to use somewhere is “Senior Unexploded Ordinance Technician.” Really, somebody has that job. But I guess this is just saying that keeping your ears open and knowing a lot of people always helps in choosing names.

There’s also the phone book. It’s chock full of names and can definitely help choose a name to evoke regionalism in your story. Names do tend to cluster regionally (and by economics and ethnicity). I doubt very much I would use the name Eustice for someone from the Yukon.

Finally there are tons of considerations to take into account when choosing a character’s name. Fit is one, does the name fit the character. If you have a Vietnamese-American Tai-bo master named, “Shakira” I think you’re going to have to explain that one. The opposite of this (or a concern for me at least) is to shy away from the “morality play name,” like Prudence, Handsome, Charity, Peace, names that match a character’s role or personality type directly. Also there’s the timeliness and appropriateness. You’re not going to have a modern day twenty-something named Ebenezer Escrutias or a late Renaissance power player named Phodaddy Big. At least not without a lot of explanation.

Names also come with baggage. An Ebenezer is going to be considered a Scrooge unless you quickly discourage that. Names portray history and lineage. So choosing a name needs to be done carefully.

All that said, usually the first name that pops to mind for a character, just like using the first word that comes to mind for a sentence, it usually is the best. Trust your instincts. Much of our culture is so deeply ingrained in our consciousness that you’ll “feel” the correctness of names.

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Via S. Andrew Swann over at Genrewonk we have a link to Dear Author and an article about the doom of book publishing. Okay, well it’s more a “change or die” article.

There are a few pieces I disagree with with the author, such as POD machines in stores (the cost per piece is much higher than even an offset printed book with quantity), but there is plenty I do agree with. I suggest if you’re in this writing business thing you give it a read. Lots of good advice backed up with examples from other entertainment industries.

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Sarah Monette talks truth to power about The Art of the Short Story. This is actually an article in the sporadic series with a longer title of “Routes to Publication May Vary According to Your Talents” being written unconjunctively by many authors on many blogs.

But she speaks a lot of truth. The first paragraph is what I’d like to discuss, though. In there she says that, basically, Short Stories aren’t the same species as Novels. This is a fact. She also discounts the “business route” of writing shorts to make a name for yourself and then start writing novels. This is also true. However, this is the route I’ve taken. And I think there’s a lot of established authors and editors who add on motivations to my move (because they’ve advised me against it).

I think my natural writing length is a novel. I started out wanting to write novels and I still do want to write novels (as I hope to be working on them this year). Also, novels are where the money is at in this game. So, yeah, novels it is.

However, as my first attempts at writing them showed, I didn’t have the foggiest clue as to how to tell a story. I took a community education class taught by a somewhat famous romance novelist that was supposed to help us write novels. It was that experience, the wrestling with the opening chapter, that demonstrated to me that I needed to learn some craftsmanship.

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Podcasts are audio blogs produced like radio shows that are designed to be downloaded and listened to on your MP3 player. I will occasionally recommend a favorite, applicable podcast and introduce you to it here on this blog.

First up is Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing. This podcast is all about how SF&F authors get published, how pertinent is that to readers of this blog? The latest issue of this podshow has an interview with musician Bear McCreary, who does the music for Battlestar Galactica and a few other SF shows now running.

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