Friday, May 27, 2011

WORTHY LINKS: Good World Building Web-Sites

Well, it's that time again when I dive into researching geology and ecosystems and how they might relate to my fantasy land. If anyone has any good research links, please let me know. For now, though, here is my own awesome world building link:


Thursday, May 19, 2011

TIPS: Unanticipate

The best advice from Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell is that since readers are more aware of potential plot developments and build up expectations based on the many repetitions of plot 'twists' they've seen before, you should fool them by refusing to do the expected. Basically, conceive of your plot, scene, twist, etc. and then put down the first thing that comes to your mind. The first thing is likely to be something done before. After all, you're also a reader and thus you anticipate of your own plot lines the same hackneyed tales that others do. So make a list of alternatives to your original idea. Brainstorm.

So, let's give this a go:

In the Medieval Era, a young woman who has always been an eccentric dreamer is told that she must marry a man twice her age. How does she react?

She secretly plots her way out of it through a mixture of cunning and wit.
She rails against it and stamps her pretty little feet.
She accepts it with a whimsical smile. Older men are less likely to be demanding of her time.
She has an affair to prove her independence and to cause him to break off the wedding date.
She joins a nunnery.
She pretends to be a boy and joins the army.

True, none of these are necessarily bad. They're all good reactions. However, you've got to admit that you saw 1. and 2. coming. 3. would be a surprise though it does mean there's no conflict in this piece of the plot. 4. is certainly unexpected but it'd be hard to respect such an act unless it was truly born of desperation as it would probably cause more trouble than it was worth. 5. is also unexpected and rarely used, fits the character concept (dreamy and quiet could make for a devoutly religious figure) and flouts societal expectations in what is still a socially acceptable manner. 6. would need a lot of build up and character development for that particular character but could be worked into the concept if her daydreams had a decidedly military bent.

And that's just what I get when I brainstorm 6 ideas. Imagine if I brainstormed 20. What do you guys think? Try the exercise yourself and tell me what you find.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

TIPS: Plots ... now with Bees!

First, let me remind you all that one of the best ways to improve your writing is to leave the house (preferably by public transport so you can spend the trip learning through reading). This Sunday I went to the Torrens Island Quarantine Station tour with my fiance (yes, I'm missing the ` but I don't know how to add it so it'll sit right). Basically, the entire island is a secure facility because the ETSA power station sits on the single bridge to the island, and the now closed Quarantine Station facility is both heritage-listed and has problems with asbestos.

My visit really opened my eyes to all kinds of descriptive nuances, not to mention it gave me several new experiences in my memory banks that can be plumbed for later scenes. I saw how buildings left for decades without care could still withstand the test of time. I saw evidence of the youth camps that used to go there after it closed but before the big fears of asbestos. I saw how part of the old quarantine station had been bull dozed for a small sub-section of the power station. I saw how the wildlife was trying to take over.

In particular, I noticed that bees had taken up residence in two of the buildings (one of which was the morgue). It made me think that here was the perfect metaphor for re-using plots. It's pretty much been said that there's no new plots anymore. They all contain a structure from an earlier story - normally, the good ones also contain traces of dozens of stories in a rich cake of complexity. In a way, the novels we write are sort of like that quarantine station. They start off with a rather generic story structure (a semi-interesting tale of an abandoned quarantine station) but we add nuances and layers until they become something fresh and unexpected.

Until the bees move in, basically.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

THE BUTTERFLY LADY: Painful Honesty & Maps

Oh dear, I spent ages trying to develop a map for a continent in my fantasy land and I finally think to myself, "You know what, I think you're close. I think you've got it." Then a friend of mine takes one look at it and tells me: "Is that Tasmania?"

Wow. I am not nearly as unique as I thought I was.

Oh well, back to the drawing board!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

TIPS: Issues with Sparseness

In one of the published novels I've been reading, the plot zips along at a fairly rapid pace. I've only read the first 30 pages and in one scene there was a whole page and a half dedicated to a history lesson about this one minor character. Now, the history lesson was really cool. It delved into how he got this particular artefact, how a friend of his died, and why he was so desperate to get across town to give the artefact to someone else. The problem was that it read like a timeline and really would've been more interesting if the author had dramatised it. As it was, it got a bit dull.

Other sections of the book suffer from a similar problem although in those instances, it wasn't exposition to blame. It was a desperate desire to skip along to the next bit that led to whole paragraphs feeling like an exercise in ... and then ... and then ... and then....

Unpublished authors can also have trouble with this one, especially since they're encouraged to cut out every unnecessary word in the sentence. It doesn't help that most of the advice involves the Delete key. Throw out all of the POV slips, the adjectives, the 'was' and 'were', remove this, reduce that, and combine the other. It's rare to find an article that says: 'put more words in'.

Yet if you hear critters complaining about a 'lack of protagonist perspective', 'where are they, anyway?' or even that there's little sense of tension, it might be that you've written too sparsely. Perhaps you need to add words. Add a few choice adjectives, some internal dialogue, or some description. Perhaps you need to slow it down, pad it out, and keep it from sounding like a laundry list of activity interspersed with dialogue.

I know this used to be one of my problems. 'More POV' and 'More Description' they would clamor and I would be confused. Weren't my favorite authors known for their sparse writing and their snappy dialogue?

I went back to those authors and re-read them and I found that their pages weren't full of lines of dialogue and ultra-brief narrative elements. To make matters worse, I found that they could increase tension and add a sense of speed to a novel by adding block after block of well-written and meaty paragraphs. Counter-intuitive, I know, but they managed it.

So, as a writing exercise, I suggest you all go over to those legendary so-called 'sparse' and 'tight' writers you read and take a look to see how sparse they really are. If you're told about pacing difficulties, flat tension, confusion about locations, or a lack of character depth, consider whether you should add more words rather than take them all away.

Sometimes less isn't more. Sometimes, less is just less.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

RANT: The Love Bug Bugs Me

I've read several stories where the protagonist seems to have been attacked by a love bug that weakens them to the pheromones of aggressive, egostical men whose various saving graces are buried so deep it'll take several chapters to find them. The protagonist then deals with the poison by mentally slapping themselves for their own racing heart and giddy thoughts. This particular love bug can be found in all genres, not just Romance, though it seems to only ever bite women.

While there is a redemptive turning point for the man, either through his decisions or through a revelation of his past, the crush doesn't bloom at this point. In fact, this turning point seems to be mostly for the reader's benefit as it often doesn't affect the protagonist at all.

I think there must be a love bug involved because there are often other male candidates who are sweet, funny, and/or kind. They may even be strong without being overbearing. Someone who might tease the woman, but all in good fun. If they don't like the protagonist very much, they'll still be decent about it. These men are ignored, even when they show romantic interest, because the love bug's poison has the protagonist's heart ensnared by someone who is borderline abusive.

Now I'm not saying that an antihero-style man or a gruff, misunderstood fellow can't be a romantic lead. But perhaps lay off the love at first sight stuff and wait until they do something loveable first? Perhaps at the redemptive turning point?

What are your thoughts?

Monday, May 9, 2011


Hey all, I've been tossing up between titles and no titles. The trouble is that a lot of them have the same family name and I hate the ungodly issues that crop up when Mr. Rosentia, Mr. Rosentia, Mr. Rosentia and their wives Mr. Rosentia, Mrs. Rosentia, and Mrs. Rosentia are coming to tea. Of course, having no titles and referring to people by their first name is kinda weird too. I mean, there's a sort of egalitarian value going about in the magocracy (yes, you won't see it on Rosentia Island - they're a backwater village literally weeks by sea to anywhere of value), but when you have some people with 'Sir' or 'Lady', you expect to see a title for the others.

Originally I thought of making all of the commoners Mr. and Mrs. under the pretext that they're not considered important enough to be known by their first names - which is an awesome twist on our traditional views of rendering folk child-like by using their first name. But while that's certainly unique (as far as I know), it's also painful to get across in a book. Then I thought of how this is a series and I'd have to get it across every. single. time. and decided not to.

So now I'm thinking of having all the nobility being referred to as Master / Mistress FirstName LastName of House Blah (as not all family names match the House name). I think it's cool, it works for me, and it removes that whole married / unmarried division of women that the Queen would have thrown aside during the revolution. I mean, yes, there is an important married / unmarried division where all the unmarried are considered to be a bit childish but a) who would signpost that and b) do I really want to invent a masculine form of Miss?

I guess I could use Master / Mistress and Mister / Mrs. but would the reader readily understand why people are called Mr. Carrius, instead of Mr. Rosentia?

Also, Master and Mistress have a fairly dominant and somewhat magic vibe to them in my mind anyway so it should work. What do you think?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

TIPS: 5 Methods To Build Emotional Realism

We've all been there. We're writing up our characters who we've said are enraged by a terrible injustice and yet (aside from a statement saying they're angry) their thoughts are all about how cute the secretary is, how much they liked the latte, and whenever they talk to someone, their word choices and sentence styles are the same as always. Or we've written a character who, despite signs around them that would make me crawl under the bed and hide, are just kind of chilling out and worrying about the hum drum issues that really wouldn't register in a fit of anxiety. I know I've done it. My first draft of Curse of the Rose / The Butterfly Lady involved a lot of critters telling me to give them 'more POV'.

What they meant when they said that was that they didn't know what the character was thinking / feeling. They were distant from the character. It also indicated that I hadn't fully set their emotional states on the page in any of the main forms. So, here are a few ways to realistically portray emotion.

1. Memory. Cast your mind back to the last time you were in pain, heartbroken, angry, scared, or what have you. What did you think about? What did you notice? I know, for example, that when I'm angry, my best friend's stroll can set my teeth on edge because an Angry Me is an Impatient Me. I know I'm not going to be thrilled about any queues, line ups, or anything else like that. Most people I know are the same way though they might express it differently (glares, passive aggressive increased walking speed, pushing in, snapping at someone, turning their anger directly at the victim).

2. Descriptions. Note how a queue can look differently depending on how you're feeling. If you're madly in love and have bumped into a friend in a queue, you might be happy to stand there and gush about your romance. If you've won the lottery (i.e. ecstatic), very little will wipe the smile off your face. If you're sad, you might not care where you are. What do you think those feelings will do to your perspective? How might you interpret the stimuli around you? Who would you notice? How would you describe it? Mood very much affects perspective so let your Point of View Character's mood affect what you describe and how you describe it.

3. Dialogue. The next time you're emotional (or someone else is) try to also pay attention to what you're saying and how you're saying it (a difficult feat in certain situations). Anger often makes sentences shorter and more abrupt. Excitement can create longer, flowing, muddled sentences. Happy people generally pay more attention to social niceties and are more interested in other people than sad people. These are all generalties, and there are other ways people express emotion through word choice and tone, so pay attention to them and then see how you might relay that through your dialogue.

4. Personality. Pay attention to how other people behave, on television and in real life, to certain stimuli. Television isn't always a good example as it's pre-packaged and fake, but if you pick scenes that resonated with you, odds are it had a believable element. I loved the fear responses in the movie REC. It felt very real to me. So, even though I have no way of watching terror in other people in real life, I can sit down and analyse the different personalities in that movie and how they displayed their fear. Some converted it into anger and targeted other people. Some panted and looked like they were going to throw up. Some just became very weak and helpless.

5. Brainstorm. Brainstorm reactions to those emotional events. This can really help you move away from stereotype. If you brainstorm 10 possible reactions per major event per character, you can then pick the most likely reaction rather than falling back on the old standbys such as Military Man converts fear to anger and wants to fight out his differences; Housewife falls down in a puddle of helplessness. It might be that this time, with this stimuli, Bob the Military Man falters as he expects to know what to do in a situation but this one is totally beyond his skills while Josie the Housewife is too busy keeping it together for her loved ones to fall apart and that focus helps keep her strong.


So there you have it, 5 methods of getting across the emotional reality of your story. Hope this helped! If you have any more, or have examples you want to put across (especially movies / television shows / books that demonstrated an emotion really well), feel free to mention them in the comments.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

When Getting It Wrong Is Getting It Right

In South Australia, we have this thing called History Week every year where different organisations put on exhibits / plays / scenic walks, etc. around the state. This year, we're doing a History Month so we have all the more stuff to do spread out across an entire month. On Sunday, the first day, I had a few things planned to do. I was going to go on the Semaphore Historical Walk, see the Port Misery re-enactment landings in Port Adelaide, and finally nip on down to the St. John's Ambulance exhibit.

So my fiance and I wake up with 35 minutes to spare and get at the bus stop a minute too late (I got to see the bus leave without me). We get into the city and it's all rainy but we sit under the stop and wait for the next bus feeling sad that we won't make it to Semaphore in time for the walk. We get a phone call saying that it's cancelled because of the weather.

We head on down to Port Adelaide for the Port Misery landings (finally) after a toilet break led us to miss yet another bus (we got to see that bus leaving too). We're walking down the street, figuring that somehow we'll find Fisherman's Wharf where the re-enactments are meant to be. I mean, it'd be somewhere along the Port River, easy, right? Being a bit unsure about how easy it'd be, we drop by the Port Adelaide Information Center (which is pretty cool, actually) and ask the lady behind the counter where the Port Misery landings are and whether they'd still be on despite the weather.

We get directed into a nearby covered courtyard ... where the May Day rally is taking place. We watch and listen to the speeches (very rousing) and watch them put flowers by the memorial in the rain and then decide to just follow Commercial Road and see what we find.

I'm not sure if we found Fisherman's Wharf but we did find a huge warehouse full of stalls selling 2nd hand and cut-price goods. We met up with friends and spent about 4 hours spending $200 there on all kinds of things from books to clothes (I tease my fiance about looking very Chav in his new hoody) to antique pennies. By the time we leave, I look at my watch and ... oh dear, there's no way we'll get to the St. John's exhibit before closing.

So instead we go home with our friends and watch Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Even though we never got to see any of what we meant to see, even though we missed our bus, even though things were cancelled, we perservered, stayed optimistic, made a point of leaving our house, went where the wind took us and had a wonderful time doing it!

While this is a wonderful philosophy for life in general, it also works with our novels. Sometimes when everything goes wrong, our characters die when they shouldn't, fall in love with those that weren't meant to be, skip into conflicts we never planned, and otherwise behave in messy and naturally interesting ways, if you persevere with a smile and take a look at where the winds are pushing you, you might get to an even better place in the end.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

RESEARCH: Best How To Write Book I've Found!

I'm one of those writers who loves finding a new how to write book. They're often fairly inspirational and there's usually at least a few lines in them that make you look at everything differently. I own a few good ones at home, I've read even more at the local library, but the absolute best novelist's companion I've found is Plot Vs. Character.

Don't let the name fool you. It's more about plot through character and character through plot. You can find the structure of your novel through your character's psychology and drives; you also find hints of your character's psychology through the novel structure.

It's really difficult to do this book justice. If you don't believe me, track it down at your local library and READ it! It's simply fantastic.