Tag Archives: Writing

Do Everything But Kill Your Characters: Why Struggle is Vital for Character Development

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When we write, we all have characters that we love. We don’t want anything bad to happen to them. They’re our children, and like all good parents, we want to keep our kids safe. However, when characters are safe, they’re not interesting. More so, readers, and ourselves, don’t get to know who these characters are. We can’t discover what lies at their core. It’s only through the tough times that we get to truly know our characters.

Not long ago, I provided feedback on several chapters for a fantasy novel. These chapters were about midway through the novel, and after having read from chapter one to this point, I found myself not knowing who the protagonist was. Sure, she was a princess, the last of her family (the rest of them having died in peculiar accidents), and was on the run from evil fairies and a traitorous royal court. But her two loyal companions were always there to save her from any attack.

So, while the princess constantly thought about how she had to be brave and kind and show that she deserved the crown, I never got to see her in action. She was always standing around, waiting for her companions to fight off various sinister creatures. I got to a point where I asked the author, “What would happen if the princess was attacked, when there was no one around to save her?”

It turned out that the princess could take care of herself.

It’s easy for characters to think or say they’d act/react one way, but eventually something bad has to happen to them. Only when our characters are forced to act do we uncover their true personalities.

And, once characters face hardship—and the more that they confront—they grow. They can only become better people if what they care about is shredded to tiny pieces. Rip characters’ souls apart and they’ll be forced to build more resilient hopes, dreams, and spirits.

It’s not easy to knock down your characters, not only because you care about them, but because it’s emotionally taxing on you. Some of the hardest scenes I’ve written are when I’m ripping apart my protagonist. I become so emotionally invested in the story that I experience what my protagonist experiences, so by the end of stressful scenes, I am emotionally and physically spent.

But, I continue to write those scenes, because of all the books I’ve read, the best ones are usually those where the characters are torn down. Even if the book is fantasy or science fiction, I can relate to the core of the hardships they face, and that makes me care about the characters.

(Photo courtesy of Ewan Cross.)

When the Ghouls Come Out to Play: How Plague Victims Became Vampires

Between Halloween rapidly approaching and recently burying my grandmother’s ashes, death and what lies beyond has been on my mind. Are some of those who’ve passed away still around? Are all those we bury truly dead?

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Throughout history there have been stories about the dead coming back to life or the spirits of the dead haunting the living. One of the most notorious myths of the undead is the vampire. In modern society, the vampire is seen as a romantic, gothic figure, whether you’re examining Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Anne Rice’s Louis, or Stephenie Meyer’s Edward Cullen. Each of these vampires is tortured in some way, while being irresistible to mortals.

However, vampires weren’t always seen as beautiful, tormented creatures that have a soft spot for particular humans. Vampire lore originated from superstition and misunderstandings about post-mortem decay in the middle ages.

Between 1300 and 1700, plagues swept through Europe at an alarming rate. At the time, people didn’t understand how disease spread or how decomposition worked. They believed that dark, evil forces caused plagues, namely vampires.

Sometimes mass graves would be reopened to add more bodies and gravediggers would stumble across corpses that were “bloated by gas, with hair still growing, and blood seeping from their mouths.” These gravediggers would think these corpses were still alive. The corpse had been possessed and had become one of the undead, a “shroud-eater,” whose purpose was to spread disease throughout all the corpses, until the vampire had gained enough power to rise from the ground.

The only way to prevent a vampire from rising was to exorcise it. When a person died, a shroud would be laid over his face. The person would be buried with the shroud, and as bacteria ate away at the shroud, it would appear like the corpse had eaten through the shroud, hence the name “shroud-eater.” This shroud would be removed from the corpse’s mouth and a brick would be jammed between the corpse’s teeth. This would prevent the corpse from being able to spread disease to more corpses and gain enough strength to rise from the ground and spread plague to more people.

While today we know how disease and decomposition work, it’s fascinating to discover how people explained horrific events before they were scientifically understood. And while vampires and other supernatural creatures are considered hot in modern literature and film, it’s beneficial to know how supernatural myths came about. In writing, even if you’re writing about sparkling, vegetarian vampires, knowing what humans would have considered vampires as a hundred(s) years ago is vital to understanding that vampire’s character.

Expanding beyond vampires, knowing a character’s history is important to comprehending that character’s personality. Knowing where a character comes from and what that character’s been through before page one of a novel or short story allows you to understand what that character wants and why that person behaves the way he does. If you don’t appreciate a character’s background, that character’s personality will shift unnaturally and readers won’t make connections with why that person makes the decisions he does.

Have a wonderful final week before Halloween, and, remember, if you’re going to a midnight graveyard reading, watch where you step. You never know one-hundred percent what’s laying beneath the ground.

(Photo courtesy of Otto Magus.)

Why Reading Only One Genre Hinders Creativity

 
In order to be a good writer, you must be a good reader. What do I mean by that? I mean that you need to read a wide-range of creative pieces.

17318222086_ce8de2611c_o.jpgWhile it’s important to read books in the same age group and genre you write in, it’s also vital that you read outside what you write.

I’ve met countless individuals, who adamantly refuse to read outside a limited range of writing. One such conversation I had with another person, when like this:

Me: I just finished a fantastic book!

Person: Yeah? What’s it about?

Me: These shadow divers—deep wreck scuba divers—who discovered a mysterious sunken German U-boat about two hundred thirty feet deep and some thirty miles off the New Jersey coast. No one knew the U-boat was there, and no one could identify it. That U-boat was considered one of the last great mysteries of Word War II.

Person: Wait. Are you talking about a non-fiction book?

Me: Yeah. It’s incredible and hard to believe that something like losing a U-boat could happen.

Person: I only read fiction. I like books that allow me to escape.

It stung to hear that person say that to me, mainly because a few years ago I’d have said the same thing. I was adamant that because I was a fiction writer I couldn’t learn anything from non-fiction. After all, fiction, especially fantasy and science fiction, wasn’t grounded in reality. Non-fiction was, and it was often dry and hard to get through.

I was wrong on multiple counts. One: Fiction is based in reality. The story may be situated on a different planet or have supernatural creatures, but the core of the story is grounded in human traits and emotions. Fiction is often used to explore controversial topics that are occurring in reality.

Two: There are many aspects of reality that are unbelievable, so much so that they seem to be fiction. Some of the atrocities I’ve read about in non-fiction have inspired my fiction pieces.

Another example conversation occurred during a writing workshop and went something like this:

Person: [shuffling my submission given to them the previous week] I don’t read fantasy or young adult, so my feedback probably won’t be any good. [A few others in the room nod in agreement.]

Me: That’s okay. I’m sure you’ve provided better feedback than you believe.

[Person stifles a frown.]

The person in this conversation was someone who only read and wrote literary pieces. More so, this person looked down on people who wrote fantasy and young adult. That translated into every interaction I had with that person, and that person’s attitude made it difficult for me to remain objective, when critiquing their pieces. I’m not a huge fan of literary works, however I still read them and try to glean the message beneath them.

While literary fiction holds value, so does fantasy, science fiction, contemporary, adult and young adult. Every story introduces you to a new interpretation of an aspect of reality. When you dive into a story, you put yourself in the characters’ shoes. You never know what you’re going to learn or what’s going to inspire you.

Fiction and non-fiction—any well-written story—can deliver meaningful lessons that have a powerful and lasting impact on readers. Don’t limit yourself because of pre-conceived notions about what you believe is good and what isn’t.

What do you think about reading widely?

(Photo courtesy of Isabelle Blanchemain.)

Terrible Writing Advice From Bestselling Authors

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I have a tendency to research on to the Internet. From investigating how to write to dissecting other authors’ works, I sometimes find myself overwhelmed with the vast, conflicting amount of writing advice that exists. If you’re like me, you’ve probably had moments where you glared at your computer screen, because you’d read so much clashing advice that you developed writer’s block.

From Elmore Leonard’s belief that adverbs are a “mortal sin,” Mark Twain’s statement: “When you catch an adjective, kill it,” to Anne Rice’s idea that there aren’t “any universal rules,” it’s easy to get lost in the massive pile that is writing advice.

I could choose to not go onto writing blogs. I could ignore the Internet, but I keep searching for that piece of advice that will be that perfect kernel of wisdom. After all, bestselling authors should know how to delve out writing advice. They are successful authors.

However, like so much else in life, writing advice is subjective. Take Kurt Vonnegut. He states that the first rule for creative writing is “Do not use semicolons.” Numerous authors use semicolons. It’s challenging to find a novel that doesn’t at least use one semicolon.

If you use a semicolon, does that mean you’re not a good writer?

Claire Messud, Virginia Woolf, and William James would disagree.

Another one of Elmore Leonard’s beliefs is that writers shouldn’t “go into great detail describing places and things.” Many of my professors demanded more detail in my work and that of my cohorts. They wanted to have a pristine image of what was going on.

While the rest of this particular Leonard quote explains why writers should avoid too much detail—it may bring the action to a standstill—nit-picky advice can cause substantial harm.

Too often writers get bogged down with the rules of writing. We’re supposed to study and learn from the greats, but at some point we have to distinguish ourselves. Find our voice. Writing is mysterious. It’s a process unique to each writer. What works for one person, may not work for another.

Advice that shuts a writer down isn’t beneficial. You want advice that inspires you. That motivates you to write. More than that, you want to have something that resonates with you.

If you pay too close attention to what others say is good writing, you may lose your distinct voice. The most successful writing, is writing that doesn’t sound identical to anything else. And while some writing advice is reassuring, it’s important to realize that you can step off the well-worn path of writing and chart a new course.

What’s some of the worst writing advice you’re received?

(Photo courtesy of Byron Barrett.)

7 Blog Posts Sure to Wash Your Rainy Day Away

 

17207988968_9ca58cbdc4_oEveryone has those days where nothing seems to go right. Lady Luck is nursing a hangover. Karma decided to kick you in the butt. All you want to do is crawl under your covers and start anew tomorrow.

Let’s face it. Writers probably have a good number of those days, whether it’s because we wrote ourselves into a corner or got yet another rejection from a literary agent.

But, since hiding out under the covers isn’t feasible, here are seven links to blog posts that inspired me. I hope they inspire you too.

  1. The problem isn’t that life is unfair – it’s your broken idea of fairness

This article reaffirmed what I knew to be true, but didn’t want to admit. Life isn’t like what you were told when you were little. Just because you work hard or are a good person, doesn’t mean you’ll get everything you want.

However, once you master the real rules of life, you’ll be able to accomplish your goals. This article helps you toward figuring out and taking control of life’s rules.

But what’s almost more interesting than the article, are the comments that follow.

  1. Compatibility and Chemistry In Relationships

If you’re like me, you’ve used compatibility and chemistry interchangeably in the dating world. But compatibility and chemistry are two different concepts. This article delves into the differences between compatibility and chemistry, and why both concepts are necessary for a happy, loving relationship.

  1. The Pain & Beauty of Life Changes

This post comes from the blog, “zen habits.” A minimalist-style blog, zen habits tells it like it is, and then offers ways to increase life satisfaction by providing an alternative perception of the world.

One of my favorite aspects of this article is how the inevitability of change is presented in both a painful and beautiful light. Without change, stagnancy occurs. Change is necessary to evolve. Yet, most people resist change, and therefore create suffering for themselves. Through change, life can improve, but only if you embrace the change.

  1. 12 Lessons of Waking Up at 4:30 a.m. for 21 Days

I don’t know if I’d be able to do this, but I give props to Filipe, and to his new world view. This article is about more than waking up before the sun. It’s about eliminating obstacles and committing to a plan. The consequence of which is becoming more productive.

If I woke up at 4:30 a.m., I could get in a morning workout, or write for two hours before work. One of my professors told me that it’s good to write before your brain fully turns on, because when your brain is fully awake, your judge—that critic within you, who nitpicks your work—makes it harder for you to be creative.

  1. Find What You Love and Let It Kill You

All of these articles apply to writers in some way, but this one showcases how necessary it is for writers to write what they’re passionate about. As Gene Fowler said, “Writing is easy; all you have to do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.”

  1. Fear is the Root of Your Problems

This article ties into the next. Many times in life we find ourselves up against something we fear. Often times, we don’t consciously recognize that the problem we’re currently having is based in fear. In this post, dealing with fear is addressed.

One part of this post I enjoy is how fear isn’t seen as the enemy. Fear is an integral part of us. Seeing fear as something we must destroy only harms us.

  1. Finding Peace with Uncertainty

I put this last because uncertainty is a huge part of a writer’s life. In this article, learning how to be okay with and even look forward to uncertainty is explored.

In the literary world, where less than one percent of writers become traditionally published authors, we have to learn to coexist with uncertainty. It’s the only way we’ll persevere.

What are some articles that have inspired you?

(Photo courtesy of john mcsporran.)

Why You Write

 

I’ve always been interested in why people write. Words have the power to transport people away from the mundane. But that power takes work – a lot of work. Work that is hard, strenuous, and time-consuming. So, why do writers persist?

Ernest Hemingway said, “From things that had happened and from things as they exist and 8670899788_9760142056_zfrom all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason that you know of.”

Author of The House At The End Of The Road, Ralph Eubanks, stated, “There’s something both emotionally satisfying about it [writing], and something that is very physically satisfying when you finally see your work when it comes out in a finished book, or when you see the pages at the end of the day.”

Lord Byron said, “If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.”

14519245613_ff8909e294_zWilliam Faulkner stated, “The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed, so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life. Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind him that is immortal since it will always move. This is the artist’s way of scribbling ‘Kilroy was here’ on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass.”

Cynthia MacGregor, author of Everybody Loves Bacon, said “It’s who I am. It’s what I love. I even write for fun on top of writing for a living. I couldn’t NOT write. I need to write like I need to breathe, to eat, it’s vital to me.”

Georges Simenon stated, “I think that if a man has the urge to be an artist, it is because he needs to find himself. Every writer has to find himself through his characters, through all his writing.”15413112213_f50271ca5d_z

Author of Band Fags!, Frank Anthony Polito, said, “I write because there is nothing else I can do – well. For many years I was an actor.”

Joan Didion stated, “In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want…but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is a tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”

Didion also said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

Anne Rice stated, “Writers write about what obsesses them. You draw those cards. I lost my mother when I was 14. My daughter died at the age of 6. I lost my faith as a Catholic. When I’m writing, the darkness is always there. I go where the pain is.”453831774_06c67eb3aa_z

She also said, “I loved words. I love to sing them and speak them and even now, I must admit, I have fallen into the joy of writing them.”

Gloria Steinem stated, “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”

Neil Gaiman said, “The best thing about writing fiction is that moment where the story catches fire and comes to life on the page, and suddenly it all makes sense and you know what it’s about and why you’re doing it and what these people are saying and doing, and you get to feel like both the creator and the audience. Everything is suddenly both obvious and surprising…and it’s magic and wonder and strange.”

I write for so many reasons; it’s a mishmash of the quotes listed above. But in my own words, I write the stories in my head that won’t leave me alone. They’re ever-present, and will only quiet once they’re down on paper and satisfied with the way they’re written.

Why do you write?

(Photos courtesy of Thomas Hawk, Visit Mississippi, MaxGag, and Stephen.)

What Makes a Book Good?

Ah, the ultimate question for writers. We spend so much of our time crafting our writing: plotting, character sketches, writing that first draft, editing and revising, rewriting, getting our work critiqued…the list goes on.5780584814_b5b11f73d8_z

Yet, say two people, Person A and Person B, have spent equal time working on their writing, why does one story come out better than the other?

Let’s rule out different genres and say that both Persons A and B are writing adult science fiction, and that both of their stories take place in space. Their story plots may even be very similar.

Let’s go with the premise of a young woman, stranded in space, who runs across an ascended being. This being winds up as part of an ancient race that has acted as various gods throughout human history, and who is now bored and feels like it’s time for the human race to end and another life form to rise to prominence.

Both stories sound interesting, however after reading the stories, Person A’s is the clear winner.

Why?

For both objective and subjective reasons.

Let’s go with some of the more objective ones:

  • 3086655956_201ab2b89e_zAttention to detail plays a huge role in how well a story turns out. It’s basically an umbrella phrase for the following reasons, because if you don’t pay attention to the small things, your readers won’t be able to picture what’s going on, and then they won’t be invested in the story.
  • World building is an aspect of writing that I’m seeing less and less of in fiction, especially young adult fiction. This is tragic, because the environment in which your story takes place is vital. It’s where everything happens. Some of my favorite books have such detailed environments that the place becomes a living, breathing character.
  • Internal Consistency is a key component as well. You can’t have a plot that jumps all over the place. I once read a book, where, on page 100, Character 9 was one of my favorite characters of the story, and then suddenly, on page 101, Character 9 was a complete jerk, who ended up being the villain of the piece. This switcheroo made no sense. I felt that the author realized readers liked Character 9 more than the main characters, and so the author had to make Character 9 evil. That novel lost all credibility.

Another example (and this one happens to be popular in young adult fiction): the main 4496975747_1e0b661a31_zcharacter is supposedly the chosen one/the one to save everyone, however the protagonist trips over her feet during every fight and must be saved by the handsome, yet jerk of a romantic interest. This is ridiculous because, unless you’re writing a comedy, how can someone be elite or the epitome of something, if she constantly needs saving?

  • Well-developed characters can make a story. As I stated earlier, world building is utterly important to the story. However, sometimes you can get away with poor world building, if you have phenomenal characters. There are multiple books I’ve read, where I knew the world building was awful, but it didn’t matter because I was invested in the characters. Granted, most of these novels were in first-person, so that the view I had of the overall story was narrowed to one character.

A problem with these type of stories, is that if you don’t like the main character, then nothing is holding you to the book, and you’ll most likely put it down and never look at it again.

  • No little misspellings or poor grammar. Readers will notice a lack of editing. They’ll pick up on all the bad punctuation, poor spelling, and grammatical mistakes. If there are too many linguistic errors, readers may get pulled out of the story. They may not return. (I once saw a novel with a misspelled title; I didn’t go past the title page.)
  • Originality. While it’s difficult to be completely original, you can take a well-used premise and make it your own. It’s too often that I see one book or book series get popular and suddenly there’s a flood of copy-cat novels, and each one seems to be worse than the predecessor.

Back to Persons A and B. Now, while most people preferred Person A’s story, a few liked Person B’s more. Though Person A’s work had better world building and more developed characters, not everyone liked Person A’s story for subjective reasons. Let’s say that one person didn’t like the story because the protagonist reminded him too much of an ex-girlfriend he had back in college. Another individual enjoyed Person B’s writing style over Person A’s.

There’s nothing Person A can do about these reasons. It’s like asking someone if contemporary art is really art. The answer will vary according to each individual.

I’ve read novels where, if I hadn’t been in the right mood, I would have greatly disliked them. I probably would have ranted to my friends about them, because, in reality, they were horribly written. But since I was in the mood for some light fluff that would make me laugh at the ridiculousness of the story, I thoroughly enjoyed those novels.

Ask me to read them today and the answer would be “no.”

What makes a good book to you?

(Photos courtesy of Stefano CorsoRob, and David Urbanke.)