Friday, July 29, 2016

Prose Blip – Introducing Characters

Without characters, you don’t have a story. If your story has no characters… it’s not a story. While it’s true that you can have a story with weak characters and a strong plot [and vice versa, of course], it’s always best to strive for strong characters and strong plot.

Now, you can find all sorts of ways to develop your characters. You can fill out “character sheets”, you can hang out with other authors and role-play your character in “character lounges” to find out what they’d do in certain situations. You can take online personality tests, like the Briggs-Meyer test to find out what their “type” is and how that personality can affect them.
Let’s assume we’ve got a really nice character, k? They’re fully developed and we’ve found their voice and we even have other characters for them to interact with. Wonder of wonders, we even have a decent plot and an idyllic setting for them.

The obvious move, then, is to actually write the story.
Easy, right? Sit down with your preferred writing utensil [be it pencil, pen, laptop, typewriter, or charcoal on a cave wall] and start writing.
You’re off to a good start: your main character is doing things, the plot is starting to be introduce and-
Oh snap.
The main character is interacting with another character. Oh snap oh snap oh snap.

What do we do?
We have to introduce this character. We have to make our reader be aware of this other character and we probably have to describe them a little bit. It’d be weird if suddenly this other person was standing there talking to the main character and no one knows where they came from or who they are.
In the real world, people scream “stranger danger” when an unknown person suddenly appears from nowhere and talks to them.
You don’t want your reader to reach for their mental “stranger danger” button when you bring a new character into the plot. No, you want them to embrace this new character and accept them as a friend – or enemy.


The Three Bs

There are three basic ways you can introduce a character, the three Bs. You can introduce your character with:

-a Bang
-a Barbershop
-a Barrier

Allow me to expound on these, because at last one of them is probably confusing:

A bang creates a whirlwind of conflict around the new character. It allows your reader to be caught up into an emotion that they associate with a new character. You have a chance to show off how this character acts and how they look and speak and move and feel. A good example comes from Scott Westerfeld’s Goliath, which is the third book of his Leviathan trilogy.
I’ll keep this spoiler-free, if possible: basically, the main character [well, one of the two] meets a mad scientist. This is the “good kind” of mad scientist, however, so that’s not where the conflict comes from. Instead, the conflict is fueled from the mad scientist’s setting: stuck in an encampment surrounded by starving, massive bears. This conflict allows us to feel emotion: tension and urgency. It allows us to see how the new character reacts [which I won’t explain, because spoilers], and so forth.
Other examples: Gollum in Lord of the Rings, Mutt in The Scorpio Races, Talmanes in The Fires of Heaven, and Rue in The Hunger Games.

Next, a barbershop reveals a character in a relaxed setting. You don’t have to use a barbershop, but it was a place that fit the concept well. Back in the good ol’ days (as it were), barbershops were the place that the men went and hung out to chat and get a haircut and a shave and read the newspaper.
The average novel isn’t set in the early 1900s, and so a barbershop might not be the best place for it. A lot of fantasy novels will use inns or taverns or even palaces (when applicable), his-fic tend to use parlors for upper classes and the general store/market for lower classes, and sci-fi enjoy their high-tech lounges, hotels, and bars.
Whatever works for your story.
This sort of introduction can be a little difficult to pull off well, because the conflict is an undertone in this case. You rely heavily on your characters and the circumstance of their meeting to pull it off well.

Perhaps the most obvious example I can think of is The Andy Griffith Show, in basically any episode ever. Because it actually takes place in a barbershop, I feel like it’s a good example. In many, many episodes, you open on Andy and a few friends hanging in the barbershop, playing checkers or getting a shave or reading the paper. 

Then a new person walks in. This could be a literal new person who just came to town, or an old friend who just wasn’t there yet.
Oftentimes, this “new” character is the one who brings the conflict and emotion with them. It’s usually subdued, but can often escalate to a full blown problem.
The point is: when you introduce characters in the Barbershop, details are important. The scene starts slow, at least for the introduction. You end up with a lot more description, often a good deal more dialogue, and then a transition into conflict and action. Each detail you choose to describe has to reveal something about the new character.

Finally, the barrier either sets the new character and the main character at odds, or stymies both of them, creating a mutual enemy. Many stories will use the Barrier method to introduce the Ally or the Minor Villains. A good example of this is from Lord of the Rings, when we meet Tom Bombadil. The four hobbits are wandering through the Old Forest, and are completely lost. The trees hate them and are rather malevolent. This creates a Barrier to the hobbits, who just want to pass through to the other side.

What does this Barrier do? It creates a tense scene in which we are introduced to a character who rather dislikes that the trees are being a Barrier. Tom and the hobbits become friends through a mutual “enemy” – the old willow.
When creating a Barrier to introduce new characters, one of the most important things to remember is this: the Barrier has to fit the story. You can’t just create a Barrier from thin air because you need a new character. It has to fit. In The Lord of the Rings, the Barrier is naturally created the moment the hobbits enter the Old Forest. They had no intention of doing so, at first, but the movement of the plot forced their hand and by doing so sent them into the one place where conflict could easily arise and a new character and an entirely new facet of the world could be introduced and woven into the story.

Information or Secrecy

One of the truest marks of an amateur writer can be found in the introduction of characters. I’ve come to be able to spot a new writer just by how they describe a new character.

The giveaway: the amount of information we receive.
Here’s the deal; I want to be able to see the character and their emotions, but not their entire lives.
A lot of new writers will be so excited about their newly developed character that on their first appearance, they want to share everything they know about this person. Is that a bad thing? Well, the idea behind it isn’t. If you have a character you love, you’re more likely to write them well and they’re more likely to be actually developed.
At the same time, however, spending five paragraphs describing every physical attribute of your character and another five telling me their life history is… wrong.
That’s not how good writing works. 

On the flip-side is the cliché “mysterious character”, of whom the reader gets to know nothing about. They’re shrouded in shadows and their voice is so quiet you can’t even tell what their gender is based on how deep it is. They don’t speak much, they don’t move much, feel much, and all we know about their backstory is that it’s “dark”, because the Ally tells us so.
When you first introduce a character, you need to give a basic description and clear emotions. Readers need nothing else at that very moment. Yes, we want those other things later: quirks and dialect and more description and snippets of backstory, but not now.

Basic description shouldn’t slow the action. The scene shouldn’t pause to tell me how blonde her hair is or how green his eyes are. In fact, I don’t even need to know those things unless they’re relevant. Just like describing setting, vivid, relevant details will paint the picture far better than a case file of information.
I don’t need to know the character’s weight, height to the exact inch, hairstyle, clothing choices, eye/hair color, skin color, nationality, and about of facial hair unless it is relevant. When it becomes relevant or the scene slows down, then you can describe this person. 

For instance, I have a character (from Asher’s Song) who is completely, starkly white on her arms and face. Her eyes are completely white, as is her hair. There’s a lot of backstory behind why, but when she’s first described, that backstory isn’t important.
What’s important is that she’s whiter than a sheet of paper and that everyone else is normal. The details I chose to describe her with? The whiteness of her iris and the contrast between her white skin and her normal skin [in the specific case, her arms and legs].
I didn’t describe how long her hair was until halfway through the novel, long after she was introduced. Her backstory wasn’t brought up until it became relevant to the story. I didn’t talk about her occupation, the way she walked, her accent, her height, the size of her hands, none of it. When she was first introduce, those details about her eyes and skin were all I provided, besides what she was wearing.
It was all the scene needed.

Emotions, not physical attributes, are what make a new character human. We don’t sympathize with a list of physical facts. We sympathize and come to love the emotions and drives behind those physical features.
That is where my description of May (the character above) lengthened a bit. I took the time (because the scene allowed it) to show her emotions, to show how she interacted with the world around her, even when it was unfair.
The thing is… when I introduce May, I wanted the reader to empathize right away. I didn’t need them to have a clear picture of May, I needed them to have a clear sense of connection with May. Based on my Beta readers, it worked, at least a little.

Introducing a character can be hard. They make our palms sweat and our brains shut down. It’s hard, because we don’t want to ruin it.
It might take a few tries. That’s okay. Writing is about creating, yes, but it’s also about learning.
Learning to create art better. Learning to tell a story better.
One character introduction at a time.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Why You Should Follow Blogs

Bloggers are useful people, aren’t they? They post things on the internet for you and I to read, things that can be helpful, funny, inspiring, enlightening, informational, and even things that make you sad (mostly in a good way).

It can be a hassle, sometimes, to actually do anything about their posts. Right? I mean, you can read it and enjoy it, sure, but it takes too much effort to comment or follow their blog or anything like that. I know the feeling, and I’m right with you.
And I’m a blogger… whoops.

Motivation is a powerful thing. If we feel motivated to do something, we’re far more likely to do it than not. Especially when it comes to food. But I digress.
What can possibly motivate you to read a blog? And what about commenting? Following? Starting your own?

The Power of a Post

A few weeks ago, I was feeling rather down. I had little motivation to write, to read, to really do anything. I was just going to work every day, putting in my hours, coming home and surfing the internet. I felt… useless.
Then I stumbled across an email from a blog I’d been following for about a year, an email that contained a link to a blog post.
I read the post begrudgingly; more because I’d followed than because I actually wanted to read a post. What good was the post going to do me, if my life wasn’t going anywhere?
Turns out, the post gave me a swift kick in the shin. It woke me up to what I was doing, and why my life wasn’t really going… anywhere. Why I felt sluggish and didn’t really get anything done. That simple little blog post inspired me. It didn’t change my life, necessarily (I mean, a week of feeling down happens to all of us, on occasion), but it certainly got me out of my slump.
It got me writing again, it got me moving again. I was motivated and inspired.
That’s what blog posts are good for.

Stuck with your writing? Blogs about writing often provide thoughts and tips on the thing your having problems (and if they don’t have a specific post, most bloggers are waiting for a comment containing a question so they can communicate with you).

Unmotivated or uninspired? Feeling down? There are dozens and dozens of inspirational and motivational blogs out there, all of which are doing their best to make sure you know that you can do this.

Blogs are much like books: they’re tools for the reader to engage with, to use, to be inspired by.

The Simple Box at the End

So. Now you’re reading a blog. You’ve become inspired by this post to be go and be inspired by some other post.

Now what?
You can read the post, feel the energy coursing through you and you feel ready to get up and run or at least flop onto the nearest couch. But if you don’t do anything… that feeling drains, eventually. Even if you do something, that energy won’t last forever. Motivation is a fickle thing: here one moment, gone the next.

Well, maybe we can read another post. That sounds like a nice idea. Scroll through the blog, find another post that sounds interesting, and read it.
Great, we’re inspired again!
For a little while.

Then we read another post. But instead of feeling inspired, we feel curious. The post – whatever kind of post it may be – has us asking questions. “What about [this]?” “How do I do [this]?”
Wait a minute! This isn’t what we came here for. We weren’t expecting to be asking questions, we were looking for that rush of inspiration. Boo on you, blogger, your post didn’t work.

Or did it?
One of the greatest things about blogs is that they aren’t just monologues. They don’t have to be. I – the blogger – don’t have to be the only one talking. I – the reader – can also get to talking. After all, most blogs have one of those comment boxes at the bottom. It’s called a comment box, but you don’t have to just put “comments” in it. You can put in questions, thoughts, wonderings, and even opinions in them.

If a blog post makes you question something, where better to ask the question that right there? Most bloggers are more than ready to jump on a comment, bless the commenter up and down for commenting, and then provide a lengthy answer to the question, a lengthy response to the opinion (and most of them are nice), or a supportive addition to your thought.
We don’t bite.

A Simple Reminder

It’s easy to forget about blogs. We’re just tiny little websites (and some of us look like we’re just getting started on the whole “format the blog” deal, even after a year and a half… oops) in the great big world wide web.

I know that for me, personally, I’d forget about every blog I’ve ever read if I didn’t follow them. Maybe you have a better memory than that, but those handy little emails they send out when they post something new are a life saver.

One of the dangers, however, of following blogs, is the possibility of being overwhelmed. If you follow two dozen blogs, you’ll suddenly be pelted with a barrage of emails about blog posts. No one has time to read twenty-four blog posts in a week, or more if some of those bloggers are overachievers and post more than once a week (you know who you are).

So… don’t.
Myself, I follow six blogs that I read on a regular basis, and then I have a slightly longer list of blogs that I check on occasion just to see that those humans are still alive. I approve those humans.
These are the six I follow, if you were curious:

Living Aesthetically, by Sarah Elizabeth [Writing and Inspiration, mostly]  
Shadows in the Corner, by Vera Aisling [Writing, mostly]
Woodland Quill, by Brandon [Writing]
Faerytales and Fantasy, by Dee Dee Aethelwyne [it’s like… her Art blog or something, I forget what she calls it]
This Incandescent Life, by Emily Tjaden [Inspirational, some Writing]

These are, for the most part, blogs of friends/friends of friends. They’re blogs I’ve found through writers forums, through other blogs, and from other people.

I read most of their posts, and I try to comment when I have time. I invest myself in them, in support of them, because the golden rule is always a good rule to follow, right?

What about you? What blogs do you follow? Do you have a blog? What’s it about? I’d love to sit and chat.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Why It’s Okay to Write a Novella

Fifty thousand: the magic number. From a writer’s perspective, this number is luckier than seven, more infamous than thirteen, and deserves first place more than one does.
See, fifty thousand is the wordcount we all strive for. The one that we race toward every year for NaNoWriMo, the number that makes us get a little warm inside.
When our manuscript reaches that majestic number, we’ve written a novel.

On Wednesday, my current project hit 200,000 words. Yup. Agram Awakens is now only four thousand words shy of my target goal, with two and a half chapters left in the rough draft. I passed the magical “novel” number months and months ago.
But let’s look back, before Agram Awakens. I wrote a novel for NaNoWriMo last year titled Barnslow Died. It’s on its third draft, now, and it’s hovering at 50,083 words.
Before that? I wrote a story that barely reached 39,300 words.

Oh dear.
What happens when your story finished, but you’re only at 39,300 words? What if you’re at 42,000? 15,000? Do you just… stop? Give up, put the book down, walk away? Or do you stretch it out, pump an extra ten thousand words in just to push the story into the novel zone? I mean, is it a real story before then?

I say yes. Your manuscript is a story, no matter the wordcount. See, just because you can’t call it a “novel” doesn’t mean it’s not a good story.
Instead, you’ve written a novella.
And here’s why that’s okay:

The Truth About Numbers

In math, numbers are important. They’re the reason math is a thing. Even when advanced math trails off into x and y and z and tan(x) or f’(x,y) or some other function, they all came from numbers first. Without numbers, we wouldn’t have math.
You might say that numbers are vital.

What about in writing?
Turns out… you don’t need numbers to write. You can write a whole story without using a single number. It can even be a good story. Therefore, we can conclude that numbers are not vital to storytelling.
Including when it comes to word count.
You don’t have to surpass a certain number of words to tell a good story.
In fact, maybe you shouldn’t. I know a gentleman (he’s a judge, actually) who write flash fiction using as few words as possible. He can tell a story in under one hundred words. Can you imagine? Having to tell a story, create reader-character connection, set up conflict, carry through a plot, and resolve the whole thing in less than a hundred words?
It’s amazing.
Having read some of his flash fiction, I daresay some of them are better than entire novels I’ve read. A book that uses 80,000+ words to show me a story pales in comparison to a piece of fiction with only 82 words.
Why? Because story isn’t about the number of words or the number of pages. It’s about the emotion and the engagement you create with your reader.

Simplicity in Small Doses

The words themselves are more important than how many of them you use. If I were to take the short story I shared on Monday, Broken Snapshots, and double its word count, it would lose some of its power. A lot, actually. The story isn’t meant to be told in four thousand words, that would make it far, far too long. The pacing would be thrown off, the point-of-view would begin to feel dry, and the emotion would be strained to the point of disappearing.

Pumping a story full of words can make the story go stale. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth, like eating an orange after brushing your teeth. You can’t name the taste, it’s just bad. The extra words feel forced as you read, and they probably felt forced to write as well.

So what do you do when your story falls short?
You call it a novella.
There are several ways to define novellas, I just like to call them “books with less than fifty thousand words”.
AKA, short novels.

“But Aidan, I want to publish my book!”
It may be true that some publishers will turn you down because your manuscript is too small, but there are novellas out there that are published. The most famous example may be The Old Man and the Sea, by Earnest Hemingway, which sits just around 30,000 words.
In addition, you may as well lump together all the elementary-level stories out there, because most of them aren’t near fifty thousand words (such as the Magic Treehouse series, the Hardy Boys books, and more).
Publishing shouldn’t be a problem when it comes to too few words. In fact, publishing shouldn’t be the point anyway. Telling a good story should.

My novella from 2014, The Elenivir has a target audience of 12-15. Based on that alone, its wordcount is almost perfect. And it’s not a novel.
Your story should only contain the number of words it takes to complete it.

Writing a Novella for You

Novellas have an advantage for you, the writer: they’re short. You don’t have to spend hours a day writing thousands of words to finish it. You can write a novella in a month, writing for an hour or less a day.

In fact, I recommend all writers write a novella at some point. Much as taking a break from novel writing to write short stories or poems can rejuvenate your creativity, so can writing a novella.
Novellas let you take a break from the big projects to renew your energy and concentration. When I wrote The Elenivir, I’d just come off writing a 90,000 word novel, Asher’s Song. The project I was looking to brainstorm was rather intimidating, because the more I developed it, the more Agram Awakens looked like a monstrosity.
I wasn’t ready to write it.
At the same time, however, I was high on the rush of emotions that comes with successfully finishing a story. I had to write something, because my hands and brain were itching to use that flood of success and emotion and creativity. So I dug through my novel ideas and found this silly little idea about these cat-sized dragons that gifted their owner with magical abilities.

Thus, The Elenivir was born. It gave me time to prepare for writing another novel while giving me an outlet for my creativity. I can’t claim that it’s any good (in fact, I don’t intend to let anyone read it until I’ve given it a thorough edit, if I ever manage to get around to it). The point isn’t the word count, and the point isn’t to create something worth publishing.

Write your novella for you, first and foremost.

Find a story you’ve always wanted to write, even if it’s a little cliché, a little silly, a little naïve. Let your imagination fill the pages of a shorter tale, let yourself be giddy at finally getting to write that story.
Give yourself that joy and that relaxation.

Without The Elenivir, I don’t know that I’d have started Agram Awakens when I did. I certainly wouldn’t be reaching 200,000 words.  Not now, maybe not ever.