Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Please Send Chocolate

Due to temporary insanity - also called NaNoWriMo - this blog will not be updated throughout November. Lingering health issues - such as overdosing on caffeine (tea version) - might prolong the absence well into next year.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Me and myselves

Point Of View, or our dear old POV, is a question all writers must face sooner or later. Usually sooner. In simplistic terms, POV answers the question "who tells the story?" and there are four major groupings:

1) first person - ex. I got hit by a train and I could feel my ribs break.
2) second person - ex. You got hit by a train and must have felt your ribs break.
3a) third person limited - ex. She got hit by a train and could feel her ribs break.
3b) third person omniscient (all knowing) - ex. She got hit by a train and must have felt her ribs break.

Talking about POV is the same thing as dicussing the story's narrator.

1) In 1st person, the narrator is the same as the main character. It's all seen from her or his head and the story is told completely influenced by this character's values, prejudices, dislikes, likes and experiences. The reader will not know anything beyond what the character knows, which makes some plots trickier to handle. In my current WIP I balance first person with short scenes in omniscient 3rd person so to introduce the threat to the clueless main character. According to some the problem with first person is that the story easily gets "ranty" - the writer need to note the train of thought chronologically and "the way it's thought". I haven't edited my way through enough 1st person narrations to judge on my own if this statement has any truth, but it's good to bear in mind.

The challenge - you can't present information unknown to the main character
The opportunity - you can give your readers an intense ride and tie them closely and emotionally to the main character

I got hit by a train at 5.14 pm and felt my ribs break. Not a pleasant feeling and my rage at the hand which had pressed against my back grew and engulfed the pain. I would get the son of a bitch. One way or the other.

2) In 2d person, the narrator is not the same as the main character. The main character is the "you" in the story. It's the story about someone told to that very person. I've seen this done spectacularly well in one book - Robson. The story is about a woman retelling the story of her husband's (the "you") struggle against cancer. I can imagine it would work great in books about alzheimer as well, or senile characters (for example "The Notebook", although they don't use that narration technique in it).

The challenge - to connect with the reader when the story is obviously told to someone else (unless the reader can identify with the "you" in the story)
The opportunity - in my mind, you can tell difficult tales in a little less personal way and therefore handle less cute subjects.

You got hit by a train at 5.14 pm and you must have felt your ribs break; the paramedics said you were still conscious at the site. It can't have been a pleasant feeling, but perhaps your rage against the hand that had pushed you out on the tracks engulfed even your pain. You wanted revenge, and you would get in one way or the other.

3a) In 3rd person limited, the narrator is the main character, although not in as a direct way as 1st person. However, you as a writer must still obey to the fact that everything is limited to the character's experiences, intellect etc. You can relate direct thoughts just as you can in 1st person. The technique allows you to have multiple characters/POVs, but for all that's holy, NEVER change POV in the middle of a scene! I don't care which author has done it or which smart person tells you it's possible. You say you have a good example? I bet it's in 3rd person omniscient and isn't a POV change at all, just the narrator focusing on another character. There's a difference.

The challenge - to keep the view limited to only one narrator within each scene
The opportunity - to invite the reader to share the mind and experiences of the character yet be free to step out of the emotional rollercoaster at times.

She got hit by a train at 5.14 pm and she felt her ribs break. It wasn't a pleasant feeling and her rage at the hand which had pressed against her back grew and engulfed the pain. She would get the son of a bitch. One way or the other.

3b) In 3rd person omniscient, the narrator is a completely other person than the main character and who knows everything (or pretty much) about the characters and perhaps even the story. If the story somewhere contains "little did she know" then you got an omniscient narration. The narrator can imbue the story with prejudices, knowledge and "memories" that the main character (or character in focus) doesn't know about or doesn't share. The narrator has a distinct voice and there are no direct thoughts from the characters (direct thought = 'This sucks'; wheras indirect thought = 'This sucks, she thought').

The challenge - it's not possible to relate the characters feelings and thoughts directly
The opportunity - memories, knowledge and other facts can be freely related by the narrator regardless of what the character/s/ wouldn't know.

She got hit by a train at 5.14 pm and she must have felt her ribs break, even though she never could recall that moment. The man that had pushed her out on the tracks was already gone by the time the paramedics turned up. The train guard, who had been tending his inflamed tooth when the so-called accident happened, said she had jumped. He was afraid to admit anything else, even to himself. The paramedics believed him; everyone did. But she knew the truth. She would get the son of a bitch, she thought, one way or the other.

Feel free to discuss these points in the comment section, or post your own examples (or paragraphs you wonder about). I'll do my best to give sensible answers. I'm also very curious about which pro's and con's you have experiences with each narration style! Please share.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Curse of Being Great

We are all good at something, whether this be whistling through our nose, caring for others, cooking, writing or running fast. Sometimes we're not even aware of it, or at least we're not made aware of it.

There are a twofold problem. 1) everyone around you are so used to you being great they no longer notice it, or 2) you are so good people assume you are aware of your skill.

1) I learned of the first a few weeks ago when a friend - I can no longer remember what we discussed but probably my math course - said something like "but you're always good at [it]". I was rather surprised that he thought so, but as I thought of it I realised that praise has a tendency to stop coming. I understand that no one can go around saying someone's great all the time, but does the time passing make you less skilled? No, it doesn't. You're as good, and you shouldn't need to become better for people to appreciate your skill.

2) I considered the question about querying the other morning on the bus to work. I thought about the form rejections I've received, and how I've always assumed the worst of it - that they didn't like my writing and that the plot was lame or that my characters were one dimensional etc etc. This morning - shocker! - I suddenly found myself thinking "but what if they simply didn't know how to promote it? What if they liked it, and thought I could write, but that the plot/meaning wasn't to their liking?". Then the Evil Editor on my shoulder said that if they liked it, they would have told me and not sent a form rejection. But what if they just thought the writing was so good they assumed I must know that I can write, and therefore saw no reason to send further encouragement?

I toyed with the thought - better keep myself positive now when NaNo is approaching! - and realised I often do just that myself. I assume people know how good they are. I often look at photos or paintings at deviantArt and find them so stunning I can't imagine the artist doesn't know they're stunning. Then I keep browsing, leaving no hint of my appreciation.

The problem is that when I don't like something, I don't say anything either. Which means my reaction when seeing something great or something horrid is the same one (virtually at least).

Of course, this post is mostly a rather random pondering on Things' Being and Stuff. But also, a reminder to myself as well as to others to let your loved ones know they are great. Let strangers know they're awesome. Let friends know how talented they are.

They might need to hear just that.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

When All Else Fails…

…use duct-tape. It works in real life, and it works in writing. There are, of course, two ways of using duct tape. Sometimes either way is okay, sometimes one way is used inappropriate and you find yourself 10 miles from the nearest settlement and your car has come asunder (or your spaceship, which would be even more annoying).

Duct taping is doubly important now as NaNo is approaching!!!!! (tiny Pratchett craziness)

Two ways of using duct tape:
  1. The duct tape will keep the whole thing together so you can roll into safe harbour
  2. The duct tape will fix it permanently

As in real life, the permanent duct tape fix only works for less important things, or objects that aren’t much used. The temporary patch-up is however very useful so not to lose your stride or when you’re stuck on a bus and don’t have a thesaurus.

Let’s start with “what a hell is duct taping in writing?”

Duct taping is when you do a makeshift solution for a writing problem. For example:

  • a synonym of the word you want to use but can’t remember.
  • a summary/shallow description of how the heroine steers the rampaging truck out of harm’s way instead of the detailed “this is how you do it” description that you want.
  • a simple scene where the Evil Dude reveals his Evil Plans instead of the intricate and complicated one where the reader learns of The Plans by surmising what someone else is doing.
  • writing “went to street X where the snazzy boutique is” instead of going to the library, finding a New York guide book, looking through all streets to find a suitable place and boutique, before actually continuing to write.
  • a dialogue without deeper descriptions and speech-tags.

The most important rule of writing is to write. Duct taping helps you to use the steam while it’s hot (alright, when it’s not hot it’s not steaming, but I have acquired an artistic license to lie and exaggerate).This is especially important when you’re prone to writer’s block, or when you have a limited amount of time or very varied amounts of time on your hands.

I admit, I’m a lazy researcher. Permanent duct taping is my favourite. You often find me rewriting segments and sentences when I can’t remember the word I want. If I don’t know how my character would fix the hole in the spacecraft hull, I erase the hole and create another problem she can fix (which I know how to do). I don’t look up how dresses fit in the 15th century, I describe the dress in a non-revealing way.

If you like research, but have little time to write, I suggest write when you feel for it by using careful duct taping. Then do research and insert the information you want when you can. That way your thoughts will be archived and the cake just lies there, waiting for the frosting.

For some things you don’t have a choice. They can’t – or shouldn’t - be duct taped until the end of Eternity. Major plot points can’t be skimmed over. Character revelations shouldn’t be done in info dumps. Dialogue needs descriptions of character reactions.

Only you can decide what will be a permanent fix. Choose wisely. Time will tell.

But until end of November, DUCT TAPE RULES!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A really catty remark

I will now try to get two requests into the same post - cats, and dialogue. Alright, I admit, the cats will only be there for examples. This post isn't about cats, and I apologize for deceiving you.

Dialogue is good. Remember this, and if you haven't read the short story "Hills like White Elephants" by Hemingway, do so. That's a fine example of how you can keep a story going through dialogue alone.

When I say dialogue is good I mean it's a great tool for developing your story, yet often - it seems - left unused! Through dialogue you have the perfect opportunity to reveal characters' personality, to relate backstory, to develop both plot and characters. It gives a welcome relief from extensive - however lovely - descriptions, can add humour to a serious situation and also relate descriptions ("Does it always rain this much?" "No, just when you're around. You should come by more often, the grass is all withered. My pansies are thoroughly dead.") We learn through conversation in real life, and so does your reader and your character (through the dialogue in your story). Obviously, dialogue shouldn't be used for info-dumping. Everything you write need to come naturally from the context of the scene.

I love to use dialogue to show off my characters, and I often figure out their personality in the way they react to others. Their language, use of words and what they say (about themselves, others and the surroundings) explain a lot. Anna Gavalda actually writes out her characters not talking in an empty "talk slot" (my knowledge of professional words for these things are abysmall and I apologize. Feel free to add the right terms) which gives a sense of what the person holds back. What we don't want to say, say a lot (see my post about characters).

As example, you have a character of a passive agressive type. This is how you show and don't tell, using dialogue.
"We should spend christmas at my parents this year."
"You were the one not wanting to spend thanksgiving at their's instead of at your brother's. We talked about this, for Christ's sake!"
"Sure. Whatever."

The example was a very clean-cut case with no added text. Most dialogue is improved by the right amount of descriptions, "talk line" (i.e. 'he said with a sneer') and action segments. There's a world of difference between "I saw your mother today." and "I saw your mother today," Benny-the-Bully said and leered insinuatingly.

Or, using the previous example:
"We should spend christmas at my parents this year," she said cheerfully.
The cuttlery tinkled against glass as I froze, the dish water having the same effect on my skin that my wife's words had on my manlihood.
I saw her brow crease as she turned her attention towards me. The sun had faded and I realised just how far into autumn we were and how soon Christmas would arrive.
"You were the one not wanting to spend thanksgiving at their's instead of at your brother's. We talked about this, for Christ's sake!"
"Sure. Whatever."
I fished the butcher knife from the water and began to rinse it. The edge was dull; I would need to sharpen it.

I must admit, I often take the easy way out. How? you might wonder. I keep my character count down. Handling many characters at once is taxing, especially in dialogue. You need to be more specific in your "talk lines", in your naming of characters (if you have four "he" discussing wildly, it'll get messy) and when you have dialogue without talk lines, it must be obvious through what is said (or the surrounding text) who is doing the talking. One trick I use is to mention the person talking as the last thing before the dialogue - or as the first thing right after.

The garden reverberated with growlings from the eight kittens. Mandy, the youngest, didn't know how to get up into the apple tree and watched it thoughtfully.
"What now?"
Whiskers came to her side, abandoning the patch of dirt in which he had been lapping sun for half an hour.

Dialogue isn't perfect. We - at least not I - don't have everything perfectly in our heads before we start saying things. We can't add all the "uhm"s and broken sentences that exist in real life, but we should not forget it in the story. Nor do we stick to the same subject - a friend once told me how he never got around to saying witty things because before he had phrased it in his mind, people had gone off talking about other things. Writers are allowed artistic liberties, but perfect conversation will ring false. Besides, unclear statements, interruptions and sidetracks are perfect ways to propel your story forwards and make for hilarious - or sad - situations.

This is a perfect conversation (and an imperfect way to write):
Catty the cat sat on the mat, just around the corner from the livingroom.
"Hey, James, I think Catty is gone, we can go to the kitchen to steal cheese right now."
"Great idea, July! We take the long way and crouch behind the threshold. We will be in the kitchen through the hole beside the stove in ten minutes!"
"Yay, cheese! Let's go."

No, they will not handily use each others' names. They probably both know how long it'll take and don't need to say it. James is likely to only say "follow me" and then explain as they go. July knows James and might just wiggle a mousy eyebrow to suggest the cheese stealing by saying "we can do you know what". I think this way of building up a conversation - based on the fact that your character (Catty's POV) must know things - for cheating. It feels unnatural. Nathan Bransford have some opinions on stilted dialogue as well.

Dialogue happens in almost every story. It should come naturally, help the story in some way (character development, propelling plot forwards or relating background/setting) and be pinned on someone (unless the whole point is that someone says something and the POV doesn't know who said it - but I won't go into that). I had never dug deep into the art of creating dialogue until I received the request of writing a post about this subject, but in the future I'll definitely pay more attention to it. After all, it deserves to be noticed, and it pays back to give it due credit.

What tricks do you use to hold up a natural conversation in your story? Do you have any mistakes/tips to share? How do you use dialogue to get your characters and their stories where you want them?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Box of Words

Some year ago a friend mentioned I should have a box of words. He meant for my writing, but an idea sparked in my mind so I came up with Box of Words.

Today, I finally finished my own version of it and it stands in proud display on my living room table. However, it is empty! I'm going to fill it with positive words, and I need help. I want at least 500, I'll probably need more. So I ask for your help - please post a word, or several, in the comment section and I'll add them to my list so I can put them in my box.

Box of Words by ~Tusenord on deviantART

I'm guessing that people by now are going "what is a Box of Words anyway?". I think the essence of it can't be understood without the story behind it, so here it is.


Box of Words
by Malin Larsson

There was nothing quite as dampening to atmosphere as the knowledge that you will have to make an effort.
Toby knew it would be a very long, tiring day. He had known it as soon as the impact of the heavy hatch had reverberated through the floor, stirring century old dust into the air. Although he was prone to exaggeration, it was impossible to be wrong about that statement.
In the mixed light of a naked bulb and sun shining through windows never washed, the jumble was obvious. Toby saw four trunks or chests - he wasn’t quite sure what the difference was – but also an antique sewing machine, an only old sewing machine, stacked chairs, a so-called mobile fridge, two taken apart desks from IKEA, coat racks, a shoe rack, an umbrella stand with umbrellas and canes, vases, lamps of various sizes, and boxes. Boxes, boxes, boxes. Thousands of them. And that was only the front row.
Toby groaned.
He also added a mental curse at his two sons for dodging the task. Not speaking it aloud was a habit born of having strict parents and then reinforced by two unwieldy kids who quickly learned just which words they shouldn’t say.
It wasn’t as if his sons hadn’t known that they would need to clean out the old summer home this last week of July, before the new owners wanted to settle in. Instead they had fled to summer camp and foreign trips with friends. It wasn’t as if Toby wanted to do this at all. He had been very generous and offered the pregnant couple the treasures in the attic but they graciously declined. He wondered if they had seen it when the realtors showed them around. They probably had.
He pulled himself up the ladder onto the floor and stirred the dust again. The last time he was up in the attic, he had been younger than his sons were now and since then both his parents and other relatives had left their odds and ends there. Being slightly more middle-aged than he liked – which had first occurred when he turned thirty-nine some fifteen years ago – Toby was the only heir left of the crooked homestead.
The boxes towered above him. He swept his gaze over the haphazard stacks once more and tried to calculate just how anyone could have carried some of those things through the tiny hole in the floor. It couldn’t be more than five feet in every direction. Of course, the ones who had mashed their junk into the collapsing building certainly must have had the luxury of friends and family helping out. Unlike Toby.
He crossed his arms and sulked for a few minutes. In truth, he was glad for the solitude and the less audible complaints of his own mind in comparison to the ones from two teenage sons just hitting puberty. Yet, he had tried to lure them there with the promise they might keep or sell anything they found. They had laughed at him. Laughed. He wished he had two daughters instead; they always seemed more inclined to sentimentality and storing family heirlooms.
There was a honk from outside. Toby quickly and with surprising agility – considering no one was watching, he could easily claim this – descended to the second floor of the house, continued downstairs and then out on the driveway. There was a lorry with an open container and a man in a Red Bull cap standing there, both idle.
“Tobias Mathieu,” Toby introduced himself.
“Sounds foreign. I’m Roland Netles.”
Toby gestured vaguely.
“Might have been some long, long time ago,” he agreed.
“So where do you want this thing?” Roland asked, pointing at the container with his thumb.
Toby frowned and looked around indecisively. He dismissed the driveway where it would block his own car, just in case he needed to leave the premises. He turned his eyes to the patch of grass in front of the house but the two chestnut trees would be in the way. To the other side of the driveway, a stone wall narrowed the area to a slim strip.
“Right here?” Roland urged.
“I…don’t know. Perhaps.”
Roland peered at him and scratched his buttocks. The day was warm but the air was clear, just as the weather forecast had promised and hopefully it would remain so. Toby had long ago – or at least during the last five minutes – reassessed his statement and knew it would be several tiring days before he was done.
“As close to the door as possible, I guess,” Toby said uncertainly. “I’m clearing the attic and there are a lot of things up there.”
He added the latter not wanting to sound lazy or fragile. The man peered at the house. Toby wasn’t quite sure why he peered when he had his back to the sun and a cap on his head.
“You all on your own here?” Roland asked and nodded towards the Fiat wilting in the sunshine.
“Yes, my sons are on vacation, you see.”
“Very timely,” Roland said in amusement.
Toby just smiled, too torn between loyalty to his sons and the annoyance at their unhelpfulness to answer the man’s accusation with either outrage or agreement. However, the lorry driver seemed to take pity on him.
“There’s no window on that attic of yours?”
“Yes, one on each gable,” Toby answered, not quite following the man’s line of thought but liking the helpful tone of his voice.
“You got a lot of rock under this grass and it hasn’t been raining properly for days. How about I chuck the container in under a window and you can just throw it all out right into it.”
Toby brightened.
“That sounds like a splendid idea! It’s all rubbish after all,” he confided.
As he watched the driver back the thing a few inches past his Fiat, breaking some boughs off the chestnut on the way and lower the container down unto the overgrown garden, Toby considered asking for a pair of hands. He could afford to give the guy some extra. He could even offer the man some gifts from the attic. Surely he had kids who would like some of it.
Toby’s good intentions all fell into ruins as the man drove off with a wave without getting out of the truck again. With a sigh of martyrdom, Toby returned to the suffocating attic.


As twilight settled and another box of school papers followed one with clothes, Toby dragged out an old chair and sat down. He sneezed, wiped dirt to another place on his face, and wondered if his back would ever straighten again. He had cleared half of the attic; the easiest half with things that weren’t too hard to lift from the floor. Like boxes. The remaining ones still towered ominously and taunted his greying hair and trembling arms. He sighed. One more, then he’d call it a day.
He clawed at the armrests and got himself to his feet. The nearest object was a leather-like chest with a flat lid and two helpful slings of rope on each side. He grabbed them and pulled.
Gasping, he let go and was thoroughly disappointed by the fact there was no thud. He hadn’t even managed to lift it from the floor. Looking about, he made sure no one had seen it. He might be old but he had his pride.
He scanned the chest again. It didn’t look heavy. Kneeling down, he unclasped the lock and pulled at the lid. It didn’t budge. A frown formed on his brow at this unrelenting piece of rubbish. If he had only chosen another chest to be last thing to throw out, he might already be downstairs. He couldn’t as well surrender to an old chest that had been in the attic for eternity.
He stood up and pulled as hard as he could. The lid flew open and Toby almost ended up on his nose in a pile of mouldy garden furniture. He staggered, found his balance and returned to the chest. He peered into it.
Books. Big, bible-like things. He read the titles. Children’s stories. He shrugged. He didn’t have any children that young left, and no grand-children. There were enough new books out on the market that looked a whole lot better and didn’t weigh as much. He picked up a bunch and was rising to throw them out of the window when something purple and pink caught his attention. In the middle of the carefully stacked books, someone had fitted something flat. It was rectangular and no bigger than an ordinary sheet of paper. The purple was some sort of fabric-like paper and on top of it someone had glued shiny pink squares. There was a blue ribbon cutting off two corners, as if the thing was gift-wrapped. Across it all, someone had used a glittery-gold colour to carefully spell out three words.
It was a child’s work that much was obvious. It was garish and horrible, over-the-top and silly.
Toby put away the books he held and freed more of them until he could lift out the object, which was a shoebox. He turned it around and there was a faint rustle from within. The rest of the box was decorated as well, and the blue ribbons continued although now painted in another blue colour instead of being real ribbons glued on. There were green dots sprinkled across the sides and bottom of the box, among the pink squares, a painted star, an uneven something, and more purple. Toby put it right side up and ran his fingers over the thick letters on the lid.
Box of Words.
He sat down on the chair again, shoebox in lap. A girl’s toy certainly. Box of words. Toby wondered what kind of words, and why there would be a box for them. He couldn’t think of any reason. He had much to do, and little time for it, and he was starving. Yet he cautiously tilted the decorated lid back and looked inside.
Pieces of paper. Thin slices. All jumbled up. Some seemed blank, others with a word printed on them in uncertain letters. He picked up a blank one and turned it around. There was a word on the other side.
He picked up another one.
Another one.
He cradled the pieces in his palm, studying the words. He wondered what they were for. A bigger white note caught his attention. It was glued to the inside of the lid, and it too had a carefully printed message on it. It was longer than what had been written so far, and as he read it he unconsciously closed his hand over the pieces of paper in the same way you cage a butterfly within your fingers.
Use this box every day and renember the word you have all day and be it even if you dont think you are it. Then you will be it anyway.
Toby stared at the childishly abused language, feeling the edges of the pieces against his skin. As the evening breeze brought the scent of sweet-brier from the garden and mingled it with the smell of old books and furniture oil, Toby put the words back in the box. Then he carefully put on the lid and caressed the gilded letters.
As he climbed down from the attic, he held his treasure tight to his chest and thought loved.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Show Must Go On

I think few writers have missed the ever repeated phrase "show, don't tell". However, as a new writer (in fact, even as an old and experienced writer) it's difficult to tell what's showing and what's telling. Some cases might even be more effective "told" than "shown" but that is something to be left until after you can actively make the choice. I'm of the firm belief that rules are meant to be bent, if not broken, but only if you first know the rules.

Back to the vital question: what is telling?

He hated her.

The mere sight of her made him bare his teeth and it was only thirteen years of learning to control his reactions that allowed him to pull the growl back into a pleasant smile.

Which one of these conveys the most images and emotions? I hope you say "showing" or I've failed. But this was easy showing - you're in his head and can convey all these things to the reader without someone else interpretating. When it comes to writing, you must also be able to translate descriptions and characters through a pair of glasses = your POV. That's the active character, the one who sees. If you write with a complete omniscient everyone-included narrative this might not be a problem. However, I can't recall having ever read anything like that. Every story I've read has been from someone's perspective - be it a narrator, one of the 20 active characters or a completely unengaged narrator (a video camera - try Moderato Cantabile by Marguerite Dumas if you want to see how that works).

Now imagine the man in the previous example. He's controlling the flash of emotions, letting nothing show in his opinion because the growl was so brief no one noticed. The active character is now the woman he's meeting and she doesn't have a clue about his emotions. How do I give a sense of hatred from the man?

She could sense that he hated her.

He smiled at her when their hands met briefly, in fact so briefly that he let go before she had barely touched his skin. She felt unbalanced as she straightened, and she tried to understand his hooded gaze and the closed fists he pressed against his sides.

Granted, my showing isn't all too clear that he HATES her. He might be embarrassed, scared or just feeling awkward. But it gives enough away for the reader to pick up other hints along the way that might explain it more clearly. Also, is it important to know his exact feeling? The tension is there, the promise of conflicts and perhaps danger. That might be all you need.

The most difficult part of "showing not telling" is to describe when your own active character (POV) isn't aware of what you want to describe. We deny our own emotions, we doubt what we see and what we sense - we do this in real life and it should happen in writing as well. Even if you write fantasy, people are people. Alright, I give you the benefit of a doubt. You might decide to do a superadvance sci-fi world where people are completely aware of themselves. You can now go write something fantastic instead of reading the last paragraph (or go buy chocolate, make tea, watch Firefly).

She didn't realise she loved him.

Her chest tightened as he kept avoiding her eyes. Annoyance filled her and she brushed hair away from her face, molding it back into the curls falling down her back. He was being silly; it had been a long time since high school. Just because he had changed into some dropdead gorgeous brat he didn't need to stick up his nose like this. She had known him when he was a fumbling fifteen year old and she remembered he hadn't always had money on the bank or a face fit for ads. All he had had back then was his smarts, and she had longed for the ease with which he passed every exam thrown in front of him. It was unfair, she thought as she studied the indifferent expression on his face as he began talking to her husband. He had it all. She sighed, but she couldn't even envy him for it. She looked to her husband, then to the young upstart again. They were a world apart.

I think you all noticed the difference in length between the paragraphs. Showing takes more space, especially when you're showing something of which the active character isn't aware. I even compressed this more than I would have liked. To reveal things hidden within like this often takes a full manuscript , just consider the romances you have watched. I'm not saying romances are the only genre with it, but they are the stories where these hidden emotions are vital for the plot.

I have focused this post on showing emotions, but it's possibly to apply the same strategy of replacing an adjective with verbs for other descriptions.

It was a warm day.

The breeze licked her face like a human breath, and she stretched her naked legs out into the sunshine, hoping to make her dark skin shine golden by the end of the summer.

I now wish you good luck with your writing. You got more examples of "showing not telling"? Post them in the comment section, I'd love to read and discuss it!

Friday, July 23, 2010

I don't write stories about happy little elves

Why? you might scream in dismay.

Because it's dull. A character going through a whole series of event, or even just one, without meeting any sort of obstacle makes a rather uniform book. It robs you of a climax.

Every story needs a conflict. Conflicts aren't a part of happy little elf stories, because conflicts are difficult, dark and usually full of despair. I don't care if you write comedy, drama, fantasy, chick lit or YA. Somewhere along the road, your character needs to run into problem. It might be a boyfriend ditching her, a horridly embarrasingly stand-up gig, a dragon eating his arm, a friend betraying her or a bunch of hungry vampires glowing in the sunlight.

Like in real life, I need the contrast of struggle and pain to enjoy it when your character triumphs. Like relishing a bar of chocolate after exercising. Or getting an A on the stupid exam. Or cradling your newborn in your arms. Things like that doesn't come without a struggle.

Don't rob your characters - or your readers - of the satisfaction of overcoming hardships.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Characters for the Emotionally Stunted Writer

If anyone is offended by the blog title, I apologise in advance. It's all my friend's fault, because she suggested the title when I said I was going to take the conversation about characterization I had with her and make it into a blog post. She cuts herself short, of course, but the title stuck.

First of all, I loathe a story which starts off - or in any way includes - a description dump. Please don't present your main character, or other characters, by using one or several paragraphs telling me how they look, what they've done in their life, what they will be doing, what their family is like etc etc. Want to tell me who your character is? Show it through action! Interaction is the best way to understand people - it's in the approach to others you reveal your own personality, prejudices, interests.

Remember that your characters are more than their looks. Looks are usually the first thing we judge in real life so it makes sense that it's the first impression we get from our characters. But as we travel down the path of the story together, looks aren't the only thing we notice. On a side note, our appearance is influenced by who we are. Confidence is attractive. A shy person might hunch together and look short. Now, let's stop thinking about looks - it makes me self conscious! So, who ARE your character? Which heartbreaks did she experience - and which ones did she cause? Or did his father berate him so much about sport he came to hate it? Is she allergic against her wolf-deamon? Your characters' history and backgrounds are directly linked to their behaviour today.

So what are the reasons why? Let's say your character hates celebrating her birthday. Why? Her father died on her 12th birthday and she doesn't want to be reminded of it. Or a less serious example. Your character hates Mr Right (well, Mr Right-to-be). Why? Because he has the same blue eyes as her first bf who dumped her after convincing her to have sex.

Note that you don't need to write everything into the story (although readers usually seem to enjoy these tidbits - I sure do!). But the fact that you know helps you realise how your character would act in other situations. Remember that your POV decides what you can relate about your characters. A limited 3rd person will not allow you to tell anything about the surrounding characters that your main character doesn't have a reason knowing.

Tying into that which isn't said - what a character doesn't want to tell about itself is usually the things that defines them the most. The secrets and hurtful experiences often affect our actions and reactions - the same is true for your characters.

Another thing that I often notice when people describe their characters are substated facts (eloquently named by me at this very moment). These are traits that I perceive automatically when another trait is mentioned (this is all due to prejudices, and can vary from person to person). For example, if you say "blonde" I imagine that person having blue eyes. If you say "fire fighter" I think "brave", "tells jokes" includes witty, fun, wanting to be the centre of attention (etc). So, focus on the things about your character that aren't already understood through other traits.

This ties in to the one idea that has helped me the most - imagine your character portrait being a caricature. When it comes to painting, an artist can immeditely relate a person's identity by focusing on a few distinct traits and then just be sketchy about the rest. Which parts of your character are the ones that separates him or her from everyone else?

Another mind-game is to remember that every effect has a cause (or several) and every cause has effects. For my part, I usually experience the effects first, and the realise the cause. That means that I see how my character reacts to something, and then I figure out why he or she reacted the way he/she did. Examples:
Cause -> effects (he almost drowned once -> he hates bathing/he has nightmares/he panics when he has hard to breathe)
effect -> causes (she's afraid to be alone -> she doesn't like silences/her brother scared her once when she was young/her own thoughts freak her out/her granny has been telling her too many sinister tales).

As this became such a long post, I'll save one important character developer for a later date - The Conflict. As always I appreciate your thoughts on the matter. Also feel free to give me ideas on what else you want me to write about.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Clichés Are Your Friend

I think every writing blog out there, every author and every professional in the literary movement will tell you to avoid clichés like the plague. I've seen it often enough. I've got a different view on the matter, however.

Embrace them! You must know your enemy to vanquish them.

I take a cliché, I happily apply it. Then I mess it up so bad you don't know which way is up or down. (Alright, I might be prone to exaggeration) I'll examplify, because I find general statements mostly unhelpful when it comes to actually doing something.

A young woman starts her new job. She's pretty, and so is her boss. The boss seem so many miles above her, but she falls in love. Boss-employée relationship ensue.

Everyone who recognise the plot, raise your hands.

So what now? You take the boss, make her female and 10 years older. Tada!

Let's try one about characters:

Sexy, social, laughing blonde enchants every guy around her and acts like a bitch towards every girl who comes close. The blonde is empty-headed, and obviously slept her way to her position. She wouldn't know a fresh opinion if it so sat on her pretty nose.

Seen it before? Oh, sorry, did I forget to tell you she's a rebel infiltrator, sabotaging the mission? My bad.

Clichés are fun. If you know them, it's so easy to trod all over them, to surprise people because readers EXPECT you to follow the clichés. Just be careful - they might throw your story down before they realise you aren't actually being cliché.

I now want your examples! Let me know how you took a cliché and wrought it to something original.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A Skeleton in the Story

As I couldn't think of a new topic, a friend suggested a post about plots. Face it, plots are my weak point - at least coming up with a main plot. But I know the importance of having an actual main plot.

But what is a main plot? In abstract terms it's the skeleton that keeps up your story. On that plot you can hang the flesh (characters), the muscles (the action), the subplots (the brain) and the descriptions (clothes).

I just made those metaphors up. Or are those similes? Never mind. The main plot! In a specific example of what can be seen as the main plot, let's look at a few examples from literature and films.

Lord of the rings - the quest to defeat Evil
Streetdance - to compete and win the british streetdance competition
Transformers - find the Cube
Sahara - find the ironclad ship/the plague source
Pretty Woman - prostitute getting off the streets
Runaway Bride - Writing a piece about a woman who deserts men at the altar

Why is it even important to have a main plot? Because it's the red thread that ties everything else together. You need a focus when writing, something that the readers can hold on to when you swivel out into the bush (those are the fun moments, right?). Personally, these main plots usually come AFTER I got the story. My story is the characters, the subplots. It's not like this for everyone. Some might even get a "duh" reaction to this post because the main plot is their starting point and therefore natural.

But the main plot doesn't need to be what the story is about. My main plots include "the universe rule is threatened by rebels" (the story is about love beyond the norms), finding a lost familiar (it's about love and guilt and facing hardships instead of running from them) and a detective looking for a missing person (about the good in people despite the darkness around them).

I might be rambling, and I feel I'm not very clear on why you need it, but that doesn't keep me from being certain an overarching structure such as this is vital for any story. Without it, you can't have a beginning and an end. You can keep adding small plots and events forever - it's like a real life!

A writing teacher once taught me how to write a short story by the suggestion to look at it as a small piece of a cake. Novels are the same - just includes a larger piece. No matter how much I'd like to, I've never been able to gobble down a whole cake. If I did, I'd probably be sick of it. But getting a small glance out of a life, that's delicious.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Egocentric and Chasing Accomplishment

Apparently I'm egocentric and chase accomplishment. I've drawn this conclusion from a comment on Rachelle Gardner's blog. Not her words, but someone reacting to them.

The comment that spurred my conclusion had the following phrasing:

"i see three reasons it might be more important to publish than to be happy with what you've written:

1. you make a living by writing.
2. you honestly believe your book will help people.
3. you are egocentric and chase accomplishment."

The original question from Rachelle Gardner was: "What's more important? Being happy with your work, or getting it published?"

I've experience a lot of anguish about getting published lately. It has lessened somewhat, but the fact is that I still can't be happy with my work unless it is read. For me, getting published seems to be the only way of getting people to read what I write. At least more people than 2-3 friends! They're great, all of them, but I'd like to reach more people.

So yes, unless something changes and lots of people randomly starts reading my work through other means than me getting published, then publishing is more important than being happy with what I've written because I'm not happy with what I've written unless someone reads it. Is that roundabout and complicated enough for you? I hope you followed my logic anyway. Which leads to the conclusion which kicked off this blog post.

Not that I don't want my writing to help people - but it's fiction after all. It can help people, but I don't think that what was the commenter meant. And I can make my living another way - I've always planned to do so. That leaves reason no 3 as the only reason I feel the way I do.

There you have it. Irrefutable logic from the realm of the WWW. I wish it didn't hurt, but it does, because I know that in those dark evenings when I doubt myself, I will believe the commenter is right.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Step-by-Step - Character Descriptions

Alright, I'm hoping I'll say something intelligent that will help people in their writing endeavours. So, I'm doing something like a tutorial, I guess. Let me know if you have other ideas or any demands on what I should write about next time!


Original version:

The man walked through the door, dragging his feet behind him. He wore glasses and his dark blonde hair hung over them. He had brown eyes and there was a scar on his right ankle. The clothes he wore were simple jeans and a t-shirt. He had no bag but he held a book in his hand.

This isn't too bad, right? But it can be better!

Tips 1: Be Specific (which doesn't mean exhaustive!)

Roger walked through the door, dragging his feet behind him. He wore a pair of Christian Dior glasses and the rat-coloured hair hung over them. In his hands were a copy of The Chocolate Addict's Guide To France.

Imagine your writing as a caricature portrait - choose the traits that best describe your character (or the ones important for what is happening or will happen) and skip the rest. Readers have imagination too. However, be careful to not "forget" important traits, just to later describe them. Readers can easily be annoyed if you suddenly say something that breaks their idea of your character. And that a man carries that kind of book raises questions about why. And readers wondering things (i.e. wanting to find them out) is a very good thing.

Tips 2: Use the Right Verb

Roger stumbled over the threshold. A pair of Christian Dior glasses balanced on his nose and made a constant wrinkle in the rat-coloured hair at his ears. He pressed a copy of The Chocolate Addict's Guide To France to his chest.

To say "stumbled" indirectly says he wasn't exactly picking his feet up from the ground, and gives another kind of atmosphere. It makes it an awkward moment. That the glasses "balanced" instead of being worn shows a certain precariousness. All in all, you can give a lot of atmosphere and suspense if you choose another verb when describing a character (or landscape for that matter). To say "pressing to one's chest" instead of "hold" gives the impression of a shy character - further deepening the stumbled/awkward/dragging his feet thing.

Tips 3: Tie It to Action/Backstory

Roger stumbled over the threshold, almost dropping the Christian Dior glasses that balanced on his nose. There was a constant wrinkle in the rat coloured-hair where the glasses clung to his ears; his mother had always tried to smooth it out. He pressed The Chocolate Addict's Guide To France, determined not to lose it again.

Can't you just tell his overprotective mother was an annoying sweetheart? And where did he lose the book, and why doesn't he want to do it again? The fact that he's almost dropping the glasses justifies that you mention them and erases the "information dump" feel.

Take Notice 1:
An important thing to remember however is that the description is always an observation based on someone observing! What is noticed depends on the person looking at it - I wouldn't know a pair of Christian Dior glasses if they chewed on my butt. A man is likely to notice some parts of female anatomy more than others. Etc. Etc. If you got a detective noting down the people coming inside, he might just do it in the original way I wrote.

Take Notice 2:
If the observer and the person being observed know each other, they aren't likely to notice as much. I barely see if my friends have changed hair cut, or have new clothes, or what colour their hair is. Also, I sure as hell don't sit there thinking through everything they've done in their lives so the reader can find that out. So please don't introduce a character that way.

Thanks for your time and feel free to come with opinions and questions!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Deadly Writing Sins

I have thrown down a lot of books lately already when reaching around page 10. These includes Steinbeck, Sue Grafton and others. Here's a few reasons, and tips of what not to do.

1. Don't Preach.

Unless, of course, your character goes around preaching to everyone around them. Then it's your character preaching, not you.

(There's also a difference between Preaching and Having a Meaning. It's the difference between a blaring headline saying STARVING CHILDREN IN UGANDA and the black and white picture with the skeleton-thin baby looking blankly out into the desert)

2. Don't POV shift.

Alright, if you're writing Harlequin, you can POV shift in the middle of a scene. I only read those for the historical swoons and the similes such as "the motorcycle felt like one gigantic d***do".

3. Don't close me out.

If you're putting the reader some distance away from the reader, you lost me already.

4. Don't use cardboard characters.

If you can replace the characters' names with The Incurable Bachelor, the Promiscuous Bitch, the Shy and Secretive Professor, you're probably guilty.

5. Don't puke out characters on me

Unless your POV character is... wait, scrap that. There's never a reason to take up several, or even one, paragraph describing exactly how a character looks, what they like doing, what they've worked with and how their childhood was. Not the main character, not the other characters. I read to get to know them. Start with this, and I don't need to finish the book. In fact, I can just scan the first few pages in the bookshop and not buy it at all.

6. Don't lose track

If you've already have one character suspecting your character of something, don't make a big scene of him being all shocked when suspecting this later (and again!). Also, don't have your character reading the name on her borrowed suit, if she'll seconds later will wear her own spare suit. That just proves you aren't making an effort (get yourself a good editor/beta reader).

7. Don't make everyone gorgeous

Alright, I do this myself. But it's annoying when I read it. *vouching to stop*

8. Don't write a genre I don't like

Hey, I said it was about me. This is just a reminder that everything is about personal taste - if I don't like your book, it might not be about you after all. Though a damn good book makes me read any genre.

9. Hide my cookies

I like my sweets, but if you're going to drown me in every bit of the character's personality up front, I'll have nothing to look forward to. Dangle them ahead! Make me wonder "why did he say/do that?"

Alright, can't think of more Deadly Writing Sins. Feel free to add some yourselves through the comment section!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A book I forgot, and always will remember

The summer of 2007, I lost my beloved dog. She was 11 but in perfect health. Then she suddenly fell ill. I went to the vet and they gave her medicine. However, late evening the same day she became much worse. When we called the vet station, they said they were already closing and the nearest hospital that might be able to help was many hours away.

I decided to hope for the best, or at least let her die at home instead of in a bumpy car ride.

She became completely paralysed somewhere around midnight. I sat with her all night, perhaps slept for an hour or so, lying on a mattress always touching her. But most of that very, very long night, I sat with my back against the wall, one hand constantly caressing that beautiful head. In the other, I held a book.

I don't remember much about that book. I think it was a short story anthology. I don't remember the author/s/. I don't remember the title. I don't think I'd even recognise it if I picked it up one day in the future. It might have been glorious, it might have been mostly crap. It could have been intelligent, romantic, exciting, sad. The important thing is that it kept me company during the worst hours I've ever experienced.

So for all writers out there: sometimes it's not about being wittiest, most romantic, original, or even have a great writing technique.

Sometimes it's just about helping someone pass the time when they need it the most.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Question of Critique

I've lately had the uncomfortable experience of taking critique like criticism instead of a constructive feedback. I've tried to realise which parts of the critique that have been most difficult to accept, so to get back to how I used to be (which was a girl who jumped on critique as if it was ice cream to be devoured - i.e. I loved it and revelled in it). So far, I've noticed that a certain style of critiquing makes me feel lousy, even if I can guess that the critiquer doesn't mean it the way I interpret the words.

Time for an example. I will for illustrative reasons use an example concerning someone's looks.

"You are so pretty! You're nose is a bit crooked, and you need to brush your teeth. Those clothes are horrid too. But overall you're really pretty!"

I'm not sure what you would think, but to me, this isn't the kind of critique that makes me preen of pride or even feel like doing anything but eating a box of ice cream. As far as I've understood the problem is that the critiquer assumes the person getting the critique understands that everything that isn't mentioned works great. Let's wake up here - they probably don't know that. So, try again.

"You have such stunning eyes, and that good posture makes you look tall and strong. Your smile could give Cameron Diaz a run for her money, I tell you! Have you ever tried those whitening strips, though? It would make it even better. You know, a pair of brown linen trousers would enhance that bum of yours as well."

Look at that. I didn't even need to say "you are really pretty". It's obvious. I think critiquers should take some lessons from writing and use showing instead of telling.

To be fair to my critiquers, I didn't find any example as extreme as the above. Mostly they wrap it up a bit nicer. But this is an example, alright? They're supposed to show it in a clear, unambigous way. So I'm excused.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Snow, oh Glorious Snow

Yes, that is a snowfilled balcony on the topmost floor!
And yes, the first floor balcony is supposed to be some feet above ground.

I love winter. Real winter. Not the wishywash thing we usually get, but this kind of winter. 2 feet of snow - that lasts! - and crisp days.

I should make a snow dragon. Some years back, I did a huge chinese dragon out of snow. Perhaps it's time to repeat the feat? Just because I'm a legal adult since several years back doesn't make it look weird, right? Right.

After all, a colleague told me she had dug her way out on her balcony, making a snow cave out of the heap to make the task less task-like.

One should never be too old to be childish.

Mr Simmons and the Black Cat

As a first post, claiming to be a writer and all, I figured I should present to you one of my flash fic stories. It was inspired by an artwork called Mr Simmons by Axel Fridell.

Mr Simmons and the Black Cat

Mr Simmons was comfortable sitting in the worn armchair reading the newspaper. The library was still quiet and peaceful, but Mr Simmons knew that in forty-five minutes the tranquillity would be broken by a rowdy school class, as it was every Tuesday. Yet, he wasn’t worried, for he knew very well that he would finish the paper before that, as he did every day and had for quite some time.
Mr Simmons was a handsome man although already five and thirty. He was tall and always dressed very fashionable and correct. He was known for his gentlemen ways and everyone thought well of him. Some years earlier, he had been married with a woman of important relations and gentle temperament. It had been a fortunate match for both purse and heart. She had died in childbirth and Mr Simmons had not had it in him to remarry.
On this day, five to ten in the morning, he folded the newspaper and rose from the chair. He returned the paper to its place, straightened his top hat and left. As he walked out of the door, a sudden shadow startled him. He looked up and, from upon a brick wall, a black cat was watching him.
The yellow eyes of the cat held his gaze with a peculiarly human expression. Mr Simmons shuddered suddenly, as if by a cold wind. Annoyed at his own silliness, he scolded himself for being so superstitious. He continued his way down the street, determined not to think more of the strange encounter. The day was clear and cold, as often it was in March. Mr Simmons pulled his white scarf firmer around his long neck and strode homewards. A few minutes later, he had indeed forgotten about the cat.
But as he turned the corner, he was yet again reminded of it. The yellow eyes watched him intently, the sleek black body stretched out across the narrow alley. Mr Simmons stopped. He watched the cat, perplexed and uneasy. The cat looked back, unfazed. It must indeed be the same cat, although Mr Simmons didn’t like to acknowledge it. Again, he felt cold, although he told himself it was not strange in the spring weather. He played nervously with his cane and thought about taking another road. After all, the cat could have rabies and attack him as he passed. A blush appeared on his cheeks as he saw the cowardice in the notion. Mr Simmons was far from being an exceedingly arrogant man but to be frightened by a cat was below the limit of his pride.
He gripped his cane firmly and cautiously approached the black cat. The yellow eyes followed him. Mr Simmons walked as close to the building on his left as he possibly could without brushing against the sooty wall. The cat didn’t move nor looked like it had any inclination to do so. Mr Simmons carefully inched around it. When he had passed unscathed, Mr Simmons quickened his pace to be away from the odd beast. But at the end of the alley, he couldn’t help to turn around to see if the cat was still there.
A rainy and windy winter had scuffed and torn at the old buildings hovering over the alley. The hail of the day before had been the last assault that one of the withering houses had been able to resist. As a harsh wind whipped over the sky, the building lost its desperate grip of an already loose roofing tile. It fell and hit Mr Simmons squarely in the head. The pitiable man, but five and thirty and without any heirs, fell dead to the ground.
The black cat, who still kept its yellow eyes on the corpse of Mr Simmons, sighed and shook its head.