Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Karen recently wrote a great post on the perennial rule of writing, “Show don’t tell.”  Check it out for excellent examples on what that even means, and how to incorporate it in your writing.  I thought I’d take the opposite tack though…and talk about when you really ought to tell.

“Show don’t tell” is a good rule most of the time–but not always.  One of the tricks of storytelling is to know when to judiciously use telling instead.  It’s a mistake to assume that the rule means we should always include lush detail and description for everything our characters do.  That can easily land you in “walking the dog” territory, a phrase used to describe writing that gives minute detail on actions that aren’t important.

The classic example is trying to show a character’s morning routine.  “The alarm clock went off at precisely six am.  John immediately stretched and got out of bed.  He put his feet into the slippers lined up by the bedside table and walked into the bathroom.  His razor was already sitting by the sink, in precise parallel to his toothbrush and tube of toothpaste.”

At this point, readers may want to sleep themselves!  Often, this kind of writing can be cut entirely–if the action is at John’s office, just begin there.  But maybe that overly detailed morning routine is trying to do something–to show that John is very precise and organized.  This could probably be shown somewhere else–or you could do it in a small piece of telling: “After waking up at six and following the same routine as he had for the last five years, John arrived at the office promptly at 7:30.”  Maybe as the story goes on, John’s morning routine will start changing in an important way.  Establishing it in one quick piece of telling sets the stage for what comes later, without needing to invest long lengths of time in showing it.

Telling is also effective for jumping between two points in the story, usually across a time lapse, when nothing very important happened in between.  You may need the reader to know something about what happened in that time, but it’s not vital enough to devote great detail to it.  To borrow an example from The Princess Bride, in the “unabridged version,” there’s a long, long stretch between Buttercup’s engagement to Prince Humperdink and her kidnapping.  In the abridged version, this is shortened to something like, “With one thing and another, three years passed.”  There’s the time jump.  If desired, much more could have been conveyed with just a few more phrases.  For example, “With political negotiations for Prince Humperdink and princess lessons for Buttercup, three years passed.”  Now we know all we need to about the intervening time, without wading through scenes of Humperdink negotiating or Buttercup learning etiquette.

Telling is also helpful at times when you deliberately want to withhold detail, not because it’s unimportant but because it is.  In the case of a mystery, telling can help to keep the reader guessing.  “Jane picked up a package on the way to work, and only noticed when she arrived that she had the wrong one.”  Perhaps Jane accidentally intercepted a package between spies, and the next three chapters will involve trying to trace the package’s intended recipient.  If we saw Jane at the post office, with precise detail on other customers and everyone she interacts with, it could give too much away too quickly.

I also rather like using telling for understatement and comedic effect.  “After the thunderstorm, the two flat tires, the absurdly long detour and especially the flock of unfriendly sheep, Jack became convinced the road trip was cursed.”  I admit I might be tempted to show some of those mishaps, but if the story is really about what happens once Jack winds up stranded in a small town, quickly dispensing with how he got there could be the best way to go.  And I’m not sure I can make unfriendly sheep any funnier than what readers would imagine on their own…

Like just about every rule of writing, “Show don’t tell” is true but not absolute.  There’s just one rule that seems to apply every single time, and that’s from George Orwell: “Break every rule rather than write something barbarous.”

Show–but if doing so will mean something unnecessary, long-winded or barbarous–then tell.

Hands1I like action movies, spicy food, and long walks on the beach. Sounds like a dating site mantra, right? Well, there might be something more to this.

Real people have tastes, real people have likes, dislikes, and preferences. Real people discriminate both positively and negatively. Real people are unique. Shouldn’t our characters share similar attributes?

It’s easy to get lost in our plots, interactions, world building, story structure, prose, and a million other important building blocks of storytelling. But in any great book I’ve read, characters are at the center of it all. Characters who seem like real people.

My advice, learn about your characters. In an outlined, plot-driven story, it’s easy to forget about their decisions. It’s easy to make them do something because the plot requires it. But is that decision something our characters would make if truly given the option? Do we even know?

Spend some time building your characters. Get to know their families and friends. Discover what sorts of people they hang out with, and what they like to do in their free time. What decisions have they made in their past to get them to where they are today? What are their hobbies?

In addition, I recommend truly looking at whether they play inactive or active roles in your story. In other words, are your protagonists responding only to how your antagonist set them up, or are they actively progressing and growing based on their own motivations? Commonly, protagonists play inactive roles in the beginning of stories due to the antagonist’s inciting incident, then grow based on their experiences and interactions. However, most great stories I’ve read show the characters actively making hard decisions and progressing the story themselves – and from the very beginning – instead of being pulled along by the plot.

Now, should all the characters likes, dislikes, and preferences be included in the story? I say no. But as the writer, it is important you know them. Give hints to some, and reveal others. This will make a character jump out of the page and come to life.

In short, characters are people too! Know them better than your best friend, even better than yourself. You alone know their pasts, their present, and their futures. Show us who they are, connect us to them, and we won’t be able to put that story down.

I love a good fantasy world.  I live in the real world (and I assume you do too!), so I love the chance to visit different worlds when I read.  When I look at my favorite fantasy books, many are favorites at least in part because I love visiting the place where they’re set.

As a reader, I love elaborate worlds–but as a writer, I must admit that my first thoughts are usually around characters and plot, and much less about the details of where those characters live.  Fortunately, I found a very helpful resource to get me thinking in those directions: Patricia C. Wrede’s Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions.

This is a great tool for anyone trying to jump-start thoughts about creating a new world.  The list provides dozens of questions, often on things I never really thought about–but which spark all sorts of ideas once they’re brought up!

It starts with the basics about the world itself, like physical laws and whether you’re even on Earth.  There’s a section with questions about the magic system, and another one for people and culture: What do people wear, do they have special holidays, what foods do they eat and how do they buy that food?  Do they have culture-specific greetings, and are they friendly to foreigners?  There are also questions about government, geography, and languages…to just scratch the surface.

There are tons of questions on all sorts of aspects of the world.  You may not want to answer every question, but I find that even just reading them helped me to at least keep some concepts at the back of my mind as I write.  And sometimes it was helpful noticing which questions weren’t so relevant–for instance, my novel isn’t about large-scale conflict between countries, so generally all my kingdoms get along reasonably well, and questions about political tensions aren’t so relevant.  But thinking about what a story isn’t can sometimes be as helpful as thinking about what it is.

These questions helped me notice that I have a prevalence of evil magicians in my world, and I’d better explain why so many magicians are evil.  I also had to sit back and look at just how common I wanted magic to be, and decided that for most people in my countries, any magic more powerful than a trinket or a charm was fairly unusual–but not a shock to anyone either.  So they probably don’t cook their dinner using magic, but if they live near a dark forest, an attack by a rogue hippogryph has about the same likelihood as an attack by a pack of wolves.  And they don’t see talking cats every day, but might every year or so.

We know so many details about the culture we live in, but they’re familiar so we take them for granted.  These worldbuilding questions are immensely helpful for making you think about the aspects of the world that we generally don’t need to think about–so that you can decide what they might be like in another world.  If you’re creating a fantasy world or even considering it, then you should explore the Worldbuilding Questions.

And two more suggestions at the end of this post: not only did Patricia C. Wrede write the Worldbuilding Questions, she also wrote the brilliant Enchanted Forest Chronicles, which I highly recommend if you enjoy light-hearted fantasy.

If you enjoy fantasy of any kind, then I also have to tell you about the Once Upon a Time reading experience currently being held by one of my favorite bloggers, Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings.  All you have to do to participate is read and review some fantasy during the spring–and it’s much more fun if you also read other people’s reviews, which are all linked here.  It’s a great community of readers, and a fantastic way to find some new books to read…and new fantasy worlds to explore!

EasterIshtarHappy Easter. Wait, hold on, back up. Easter? What is this “Easter thing” I speak of? Seems like a strange question, but the name alone inspires much controversy. Don’t believe me? Keep reading.

For Christians, it celebrates the resurrection of Christ. When I was a kid, the following questions always made me scratch my head. Where did the Easter Bunny and Easter eggs come from? Why is it always celebrated on Sundays? And finally, why do so many non-religious people observe it?

I won’t even begin to delve into this, but it has everything to do with old paganism. Disagree? Yeah, controversy.

Over the past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about Easter – what it means today, what it used to mean, and why it changed so much. This also got me thinking about holidays in general, which made my mind spin with creativity.

Holidays in writing. What a great opportunity to create culture in a story. So much richness, contention, and differing beliefs exist today in reality, why not transfer this over to world building?

Developing holidays gives us a chance to create cultures and conflict, back-story and religion. If you don’t know where to begin building characters, religions, or plots, you can start with holidays.

easter_egg_huntJust make something up! Call it Purple Tortoise Day! It sounds ridiculous, right? But to those of us unfamiliar, and even to some of us who are, painting Easter eggs and dressing up Christmas trees might also seem ridiculous. Call your new celebration Day of Milk Baths or create a yearly Carrion Carry!

Regardless what you choose, the more ridiculous the holiday you think up, the more interesting it will be, and likely, the richer the history. It will create conflict, religions, and tension potentially before you even come up with a protagonist.

Then, when you set pen to paper to write your story, your world will already be vast. Your characters will feel more real and relatable. Their adventures closer to home. Here’s a point I find very interesting. The majority do not know the true roots or reasons of common holidays, or understand the full picture of their histories. I find this fascinating. Holidays are traditions. Through the years, they change. Meanings lost or twisted. Reasons for certain games and their rules shift. But the spirit of the holidays can remain.

Christians, atheists, agnostics, and every other religion can celebrate Easter in their own ways, or can choose to not celebrate at all.

ChristianEasterThis is what makes holidays so intriguing. You do not need to write exposition in your story as to why it exists. You simply can show your characters celebrating it. The readers will understand your hints of meaning, and will be intrigued as to why certain traditions endure. As the writer, you don’t need to delve into the past to pique your readers’ interest. In fact, doing just the opposite can often help mold a richer culture, develop more tantalizing characters, and reveal hints of a lost history. If done correctly, you will have succeeded in sucking your readers in, and making your story feel more real.

So Happy Easter to all, whether you are Christian or Agnostic. Atheist or Buddhist. Celebrate this special day as you wish, but remember, each day is what you make of it. May you find happiness this day, and the next.

Like many a horror junkie, I went through a serial killer obsession stage.  Okay, not just like many horror junkies, but like many people period.  We, as a culture, have become fascinated by the monsters among us.  For most people, I expect the attraction is related to the same sensationalism that feeds the “what bleeds, leads” mentality of the mainstream news.  For others, I’m guessing there is a subconscious anti-hero worship where people identify with the taking of a desired object, even in the face of resistance.  Maybe because of resistance.  And finally, there are those who are intrigued by the different demons that possess these human beings and turn them into living nightmares.  What exactly drives someone to serial strangulation, necrophilia, cannibalism, or deadly sadism?  What is such a person’s motivation?

What’s fascinating is that serial killer motivations are our motivations.  Many of us feel the need to be in control in all situations.  Most of us accept that it isn’t possible, particularly in relationships.  A very few of us, Ted Bundy for example, decide to exert control in their romantic relationships by making corpses to have sex with.  We all know or have heard of the person with the domineering mother that makes a hell of low self-esteem for her children.  Most of us deal with this sort of thing through therapy or a bottle of Jim Beam (and sometimes both).  Edmund Kemper dealt with it by dismembering women as mommy proxies.  He’s especially interesting in that when he finally killed his real mother and stuffed her esophagus in the garbage disposal, he turned himself in.  Serial killers never turn themselves in.  John Wayne Gacy?  He hated that he was attracted to men. Once again, most of us would go the counselor or drug abuse route.  Not Gacy.  He killed what he desired and what he hated to try and reconcile his self.

You’re probably wondering by now what any of this has to do with writing stories, or if I’m just getting off on exposing you to the world’s ick.  It’s pretty simple really.  Characters in stories, including nasty little horror stories, need motivations believably enacted to be part of a good tale. Even stories about extreme events need simple motivations for readers to buy into them.  Serial killers may be the single best example of base motivations leading to extreme stories, and those stories are inherently believable because they happened.

Jeffery Dahmer is my personal favorite when it comes to thinking about basic motivations and extreme outcomes.  The primary motivation for his crimes is so familiar and so human that he becomes, for me, a monster that I can almost feel sorry for.  How, I can hear your outraged question, can you feel sympathy for a man that drilled holes in people’s skulls and poured acid on their brain in an attempt to create living zombies?  How can you be anything but repulsed by a person that ate pieces of other people?  The answer is easy.  I understand what was behind it.  You, on some level, understand it too.  Dahmer was buried at the bottom of a pit of loneliness he couldn’t escape and his attempt at solution was unspeakable.  Why did he try to make zombie love slaves?  So that his lovers wouldn’t leave.  Why did he eat people?  Because if he did, those people would be with him forever.  Now I’m not gonna make lobotozombies or eat people, but I do understand what it’s like to be desperately lonely.  Because of that I can connect to the horrific tragedy of Jeffrey Dahmer.  Believable motivation.  Extreme adaptation.  Real life horror story.

So how does understanding real horror apply to fiction writing?  In simple terms, reverse storytelling.  Dahmer has been very productive for me in this regard.  Especially because he allowed me to link loneliness and cannibalism.

Oh, yeah. Side note. Do not tell the sexy grad student who studies abnormal psychology that you have a thing for cannibalism and loneliness.  Definitely don’t tell her that on a first date.  There won’t be a second if you do.  Jussayin’.

Back to reverse storytelling.  Dahmer’s story led me to connect a basic motivation, loneliness, to an extreme response, cannibalism.  From there I simply disregarded the source material.  After all, Dahmer’s story is (quite unfortunately for everyone involved) already told.  Instead, I began to ask questions.  What would it look like if a mega-rich person came up with the same solution for his loneliness?  Would this sort of cannibal be different as a female?  What if the population of a small town decided to keep their favorite visitors around forever?  Could someone be so lonely they’d want to be eaten in order to be with someone forever?  All of these questions can lead to stories.  For me, a couple of them already have.

So pay attention to the world around you.  Motivation and its outcomes are everywhere.  They don’t even have to be horrific.  And all you need to do is take them and spin them back on themselves.  Happy writing!

Dream a little dream.

Posted: February 16, 2013 by jennyleelee in Jenny's Words
Tags: , , ,

You can learn a lot from the world. You can learn more from kids.

They are enthusiastic with every fiber in their beings about the things and people they love. They ask questions. They laugh. They accept help when needed. They cry when they have exhausted all they have into what they love and nothing is left but the tears. They imagine possibilities and crave movement of life. They play. They want. They move.

They aren’t afraid of failing.

Kids engage in their worlds differently than adults do: kids trust that the world will bring them what they need, whereas adults may not share the same enthusiasm.

This is a tragedy.

Many adults give up on themselves too quickly–I’m guilty of this! We give up on dreams deeming them childish notions of fantasy and not realistic. Well, shame on us.

We should remember that part of being an adult is holding onto those dreams–to stay engaged with them while balancing a life that makes sense. Part of being a good example for a child is never giving up on what makes your heart glow, even if it takes your entire life to achieve it.

My grandpa (who is 81 years young) once told me that the secret to staying healthy was to stay active in all facets of life–the same sentiment applies to our dreams: if you leave the dream alone, it slows down and eventually dies without ever reaching its true potential. But, if you stay active with your dreams and work them out daily, then you have a larger chance of holding your dream in hand, of keeping the lightness that your childhood held for you.

The unwritten part of earning dreams is it’s hard work. It is hard to fulfill a dream, and rightfully so. Dreams push us forward, to try out new things, to encourage us to hold onto that piece of ourselves that takes years to properly develop. If dreams were easy to achieve, then they would be called everyday routines.

I wrote the following some years ago about listening to your dreams–it is still the only piece of work that I’ve done that I actually have memorized (I have a frightful memory for remembering my own words–this may have been why I started writing them all down).

I.

I am above you.

You.

You are planted in the firm grasp of reality.

I am above reality. I do not exist.

Or do I?

You can see me in a glance, if you close your eyes and take a chance.

Close your eyes, become one with me. But if you leave your reality, all you know will vanish.

Are you willing to take a chance? Are you willing to become a dream? Are you willing to leave reality and soar above with me?

 Your world might be of a certain reality that you’ve grown accustomed to, that you’ve built a routine in. It’s comfortable and safe. But why not expand yourself to believing in yourself just enough to rediscover the world that enchanted you as a child?

Why not let yourself just try and hold onto the dream that made you truly wonder if you could really do it?

Why not?

“What the hell are you talking about?” you ask, incredulous at the ridiculous and counter-intuitive title you just clicked.  Horror, especially the graphic sort, is a public menace that desensitizes us to negativity.  In the war between good and evil, positive and negative, light and dark, extreme fiction pulls us out of balance in a direction we should not tread.

This, my friends, is horse manure.

Like any other symbolic product, art that draws on the dark, the nasty, the gruesome, and the violent is received by different audience members in a variety of ways.  I know this because I have experienced horrific art in ways different than others assumed that I would. The idea that because I like something you see as negative means I glorify or support negativity is false.  Personally, I feel like I’ve taken positive lessons from extreme art.

By way of example, let me take you back to my teen years.  Yes, the dreaded 1980s.  Big hair, parachute pants, actual arcades.  The decade was awash in all kinds of subcultural sounds, from pre-Goth, depressing New Wave stuff to dudes in make-up party rock.  Me, I dug on thrash.  Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and of course, Slayer.  You would be correct to assume, with names of that sort, that these bands didn’t exactly sing happy songs.  And as part of the subculture that worshiped these bands, I had many a devil and skull on my bedroom walls.  The thing was, I never took it as bad because I was never a bad person.

So imagine my surprise when one day, based on the Slayer tee I wore, I was accused of being a Nazi.  Turns out, a lot of people thought that the band glorified the Third Reich and supported their ideology.  And maybe they did.  There was certainly some Nazi imagery in the artwork the band chose.  The biggest reason people thought that, however, was because of one of the bands most popular songs, Angel of Death.  The song is about Josef Mengele, and approaches the notorious doctor by singing graphically about his gruesome medical experiments during the Holocaust.  The lyrics pull no punches. They are graphic and nasty. And they are likely in the realm of truth in depicting what this monster actually did.

Now, I freely admit that I did (and still do) really like this song.  The music is fast and the subject matter appeals to my sense of the macabre.  But, I never liked it because it glorified Mengele and the Nazis.  In fact, as gruesome as some of the lyrics were, they are actually presented in a value neutral sort of way.  They come off more as a list of facts.  When I heard the song, I never thought the band was holding Mengele up to be emulated.  I actually took the song to be on the side of the victims.  I took it as an illustration of horror and terror brought down on innocent people, and I tended to empathize with them.

The song sensitized me to the horrific.  The opposite of what many believe horror does.

That influence carries over into what I write today.  I choose, at times, to rub my readers faces in nastiness because I want them to feel it in a visceral way.  No doubt, sexual violence makes frequent appearances in what I write.  But I don’t write it for the purpose of titillation, though I’m aware a small percentage of readers will be titillated.  And I don’t write it just to shock.  I write it because it’s a prominent part of our culture and I want people to engage with it, understand it, and work to integrate the impulses that cause it.  I want to sensitize the reader to the horror a victim experiences so that they will empathize with them.  Hopefully that empathy becomes part of the way they approach the world.  And, I want to sensitize the reader to the darkness that might lead someone to victimize someone in that way.  I want people to empathize with the perpetrator because he is us and he won’t go away by ignoring him. Perhaps that sensitivity will lead to solutions.

Does graphic horror desensitize?  In a world where drone strikes are discussed as body counts and dead innocents are referred to as collateral damage, I think maybe we’d be more sensitive if our noses were rubbed in the smell of burned fleshed and the gore of shattered bodies a little more often.  Go watch graphic scenes of torture in films like Hostel or Martyrs and see if you can still stomach the idea of “enhanced interrogation” or still think it’s okay to farm out information gathering to nations with less restrictive rules.  Irreversible does not make me want to victimize women.  It makes me, by engaging my primal emotions, want to resist their victimization.

So go on out there and fight desensitization.  Get elbow deep in the gutter.  Imagine the out of control.  Empathize with the light by entering the darkness.  Write some extreme fiction.  It can be a public service.

I have heard this so many times, and I have been determined that I do just that.  I put so much of my time and energy into crafting the societies, history, culture, and setting to my world that I knew I wrote what I loved.

I have the great privilege of working in a bookstore, now, and I love talking books with my  customers. We talked about authors and books at great length;  from Garcia to Bronte and the Illiad to McKinley. I have had some pretty awesome conversations.

I found myself talking to a person once, however, a week or so ago about my favorite fantasy novels. I told this customer that they all have a hint at mythology and folklore.  I like being in on the joke because I’m well read in legend and myth. It gives me respect for the author, and lets me know that he/she has done their research, and has the same interests I do.  I like it when authors acknowledge that that is the root of the genre.

Now, I’ve met people who disagreed and traced the genre through the literary tradition and so on and so forth.  But, to me, we are drawing from folklore. That doesn’t mean that my novel will hold a candle to the Monkey King stories or the Ulster Cycle, but I draw inspiration as much from those tales as from other fantasy and science fiction novels.

That made me think though, how much of my love of myth do I weave into my fiction?

The plots are old, drawn from a time when high fantasy and sword and sorcery held my attention.  But when I speak of why I like Tad Williams’ epics it’s because they’re fairy stories.  I like McKillip because her novels are evocative of Celtic or Medieval tales.

I like Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series because she draws on Celtic and Native American myth and weaves them with vampires and werewolves, a nod to modern trends and ancient heroes all at once.

I suppose my most recent writing has developed this flavor, but I think that while I am committing to finishing the novel this year, I should commit to changing it to reflect my aesthetic.  I have spent so much time developing the back story, the characters, but not so much on the areas I actually pick up a book for. I love a well developed world, but i have become pickier, I suppose.  So too, should I be with my writing. I need to give them life through a connection to our past.  Even if it is only a literary one.

Then I will know, without a doubt, that I am writing what I love to  read.

And we really should all write what we love to read…

 

It’s a shame there are so many of us writers and so few publishers…or are there?

In this mass-multi-media-mayhem of a world we thrive in, there have never been so many options.  Whether your goal is to publish traditionally, indie, or by any other means your creative mind can concoct, the world is at the whim of your will.

But, how do we get there?  Well, here’s the short answer.  Anybody can publish a book.  One click of your mouse can show you websites sleek enough to easily connect your story to the masses.

Here are some tougher questions.  Is self-publishing the best option?  How do we know when our writing is good enough?  And at what point should we stop editing?  How do we market?  Where and how do we find agents if self-publishing isn’t the goal?  And what is this elevator pitch/query letter/synopsis thing people always talk about?

Well, if you’ve read this far, are interested in our answers to these questions, or if these questions have fired new ones in the furnace of your mind, then read on.  We will explore every facet of writing our fingertips can click onto the page.  Have a question?  Good, we love discussions and debates.  Just remember to be respectful.

Stonehenge craves knowledge, so if you have something informative to offer, or a different perspective to pitch, please share.  The one thing I’ve come to understand is, the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know.  While the wealth of knowledge we carry is immense, we are always learning and adapting.  So click around.  Peruse our site.  You just might find an answer to that question burning in your mind.