Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’

HappySadTheatreMaskOur characters are people – real in our mind, real on the page, and real in our hearts. Make them as real to your readers as they are to you.

This is the most important part of a novel. We might have excellent plots that twist and turn with fresh surprises at every angle, or a beautiful, imaginative world that inspires us with awe. Maybe a fresh, fascinating story rarely told, or even masterful prose with transcendent knowledge and application of language. But take any book you love, replace the characters with flat shadows of people, and you are left only with empty, black ink.

From the first line of our story, invest the reader in the characters we create. Show us what they care about. It could be as important as saving the universe, or as small as caring for a single daisy. But if our characters care, our readers will care. So, how do we do this?

Real people have passions. If our character loves gardening, don’t tell us that she gardens everyday. Show us how warm she feels as the sun beats on her back, as her hands ache with the pressure of churning soil, how much she sweats as she labors away for hours, but show us her satisfaction of witnessing seeds of nothingness grow with time into delicious tomatoes, or red roses, or juicy watermelons. And she doesn’t have to be good at it. She just needs to be passionate about it.

Emotion is universal. Everybody can identify with it, so the stronger the emotion (well…this can be overdone), the stronger the connection. I recommend overstating emotion. In theatre, emotion is overstated, as it is in cinema and books. But the reader won’t be able to tell if you do it right. Exaggerated emotion is one of the keys to storytelling. This doesn’t mean our character runs around on a rampage shooting or slicing everyone up, neither does it mean our character should drive around crying everywhere after her boyfriend dumps her. Here’s what it can mean: Our character reacts internally after witnessing a herd of buffalo stampede over her freshly budded grove of plant life. Depending on what kind of person she is, she could scream, “NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!” (not recommended), or we can show her feeling the strong loss of creating something from nothing, then shoving down the exaggerated emotion, only to unleash it at a later time – directed at someone undeserving. Which is the more interesting story? Who do you identify with more? If your answer is the screaming psychopath, perhaps you should join Darth Vader and the Dark Side.

Point is, when readers identify with the characters, and when they have a stake in the story, we become invested. And when we become invested, we now have a stake in the story. We’ll flip the pages from cover to cover to see what happens next, unable to set the book down. We’ll feel both satisfied at the end, and disappointed there is nothing of the story left to read.

In the title, I also mentioned growth. In a great story, not only does our protagonist change, but our antagonist also changes. Many writers miss the latter point. This doesn’t necessarily mean our antagonist transforms into a saint, but it can mean they learn an important life lesson, or devolve into something even worse.

So, growth of our protagonists. (We can also show protagonists devolving.) What better way to show growth at the end, than flaws at the beginning. Real people have flaws, right? You have flaws, don’t you? I certainly have no flaws, but we all know you do, right? Right, where were we? Flaws, yeah. It’s okay for our characters to have flaws, especially if they’re universally identifiable. What makes a story interesting is how our characters deal with those flaws. Do they learn from their mistakes and get over hard-learned obstacles? Or do they fall to the Dark Side like our forever-friend Darth Vader? Show the story, don’t tell it. Make the reader a friend by showing our characters’ experiences as they endure them. Then leave that lasting impression by showing how far they’ve come. Key is to show our protagonists’ progression little at a time, then compound the growth with extreme experiences. But never leave them stagnant. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if our characters grow too much too quickly, they might lose that ever-so-important quality – reader identification.

Transformation also ties integrally with growth, the difference being, they are rarely recognizably the same person when comparing them at the beginning of the book to the final page. We need to be careful here. As advised above, if our characters grow too quickly, we will lose our audience. Want your characters to transform? Throw unique, interesting, and hard – very, very hard – decisions and obstacles in their paths. They need to make the emotional or logical choice for who they are at that time – which changes them forever. Then keep doing it again. But beware, always change the pace. If we have a non-stop, hard-hitting pace from start to finish, our readers will never be able to come up for air. And breathing is important for most of us.

In Elements of Advanced Storytelling, I promised to dig into the differences between active, reactive, and proactive characters, and which are the most interesting in stories. Okay everyone, raise your hands. Active? Eh, might get a few hands in the air. Reactive? Hmm, probably only one or two. Okay, what about proactive? AHA! There they are! Raise them nice and high! Yep, you are right. Proactive characters are by far the most interesting, and here’s why.

Reactive characters only do what? That’s right – react! Our antagonists will likely be the most interesting characters in this type of character story because they are making everything happen. They are making the decisions for our protagonists – shaping them, forcing them to enact whatever evil plans our antagonists are concocting. Just about the only interesting thing our protagonist can do in this situation is react unexpectedly. But that’s a far cry from our other two types. Active characters are good. They will react, but will also push back. They will create tension, and exert a moving role to drive the story forward. Now, proactive characters take charge. Proactive characters don’t necessarily always know what they want, but they always make decisions (good or bad). This makes for a much more interesting story. It is highly common for the inciting incident in our novel to cause a reaction in our character that impels the story forward all the way to the last page. But if our protagonists are actively doing something in the beginning, and drive the story forward all on their own, that’s when we get caught staying up into the wee hours of the night reading that novel we just can’t put down. This is real tension – driven purely by our proactive characters.

Outlines. Some of us use them, some of us don’t. But I recommend everyone sketch out at least enough about our main characters to understand who they are. The worst thing we can do is think we know our characters, then make them do something they normally wouldn’t for the sake of the plot. If you want a good reference for an outline, here’s my advice. Make your own. There are numerous character outlines you can download off the net. Some are very detailed, some are vague. But, we all need to find that character outline that fits our story, then make it. It could be as little as describing their personalities, their likes/dislikes, tastes, experiences, and what they would do if held at gunpoint. Yes, many characters will never face that latter problem, but you need to know your characters. What better way than to consider what they would do in a life or death situation?

Want more outlining? Okay, write down how you want them to change throughout your novel. Who do they meet? How do they interact? Write down a few jokes they would tell, or physical tics or eccentricities. Show us their turning points and future moments of clarity. The list goes on and on. We should never put it all in our novel, but as writers, we need to know. Key is, stay organized, stay on track. And remember, sometimes when we write that novel, the outline flies out the window. Allow our characters to change, to experience life beyond the bounds we’ve set forth in an outline.

Any questions or comments? Feel free to express yourself. I want to hear your thoughts. I’ve found the above to be some of the best methods (that by the way work universally), but I always keep an open mind, and I’m always striving to learn and grow – to be better than I was yesterday. Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your comments. Thanks!

ReflectionsMost writers I know are very interested in books and resources about writing.  I thought today I’d share a review of a book that touches on some helpful writing ideas, from one of my favorite authors.  Reflections on the Magic of Writing by Diana Wynne Jones is not quite a book about writing…and not quite an autobiography…but a good bit of both.

It’s a collection of essays that are less about writing than they are about storytelling, which is not quite the same thing.  It’s not much about the craft of writing, and definitely not about publishing.  It’s about something more integral, about the art of crafting a story rather than how that story becomes a novel.

So don’t come here looking for one essay about how to create a character, another about plot arcs, or a third about the advantages of outlining.  Some of those elements may come in, but you’ll only find them as one possible aspect of an essay about, for example, the influence of Anglo-Saxen myths on modern fantasy, or the ultimate responsibility of writing for children.

That second topic may be one of my favorites addressed here, in the essay “Writing for Children: A Matter of Responsibility.”  That sounds rather weighty and apt to be moralizing, but it isn’t at all.  Without being overwhelming about it and certainly without advocating for Victorian stories where bad little children swiftly meet bad ends, Diana Wynne Jones gets at the influence books have on children.

I’ve certainly “met” books later in life that have influenced me, but I think stories touch us and shape us in childhood in a way that later books don’t.  Diana Wynne Jones obviously understood that, and obviously believed in the power of books to be a positive influence.  I don’t mean that her books are moralizing, but I think they do build strength and courage and belief in oneself and one’s own imagination.  Good lessons for anyone, at any age.

I also particularly enjoyed “A Talk About Rules,” which discusses how seemingly-ironclad rules change.  I think this essay may be the key to why the book isn’t more about rules of writing–because it’s evident she doesn’t much believe in them.  To quote: “What you see should be a magnificent, whirling, imaginative mess of notions, ideas, wild hypotheses, new insights, strange action and bizarre adventures.  And the frame that holds this mess is the story.”

I mentioned autobiography at the beginning, and the book frequently tells stories about Diana Wynne Jones’ own life.  She tells wonderful, improbable stories about growing up in a town where everyone was insane, during World War II when the whole world had run mad.  She talks about her own writing process (something that always fascinates me about authors I love), about the influences on some of her novels, and about her experiences being an author.

If there’s a flaw in the book, it’s that some of the stories become repetitive.  This is a compilation of essays and talks that were originally spread across years, and when they’re all put together, you find that she describes the same details of her childhood three or four times.  Perhaps slightly heavier editing would have resolved some of this.  As it stands, it’s not too big an annoyance, although it may be an argument for reading this a few essays at a time, rather than straight-through.

If you really want a book about writing, I recommend Writing Magic by Gail Carson Levine.  But if you want a book about stories (and about Diana Wynne Jones) this collection is delightful.  And perhaps by focusing more on that deeper core, she’s created a book that would be as interesting to readers as it is to writers.  Really, to anyone who enjoys stories–particularly if you enjoy Diana Wynne Jones’ stories!

CherryBlossomIn the following weeks, I’ll delve into how to take our writing to the next level. In the past months, I’ve written a lot about basic storytelling, shared best practices, shown how to hone our skills, and revealed a little about characters and world building. Here, I’ve broken out Advanced Storytelling into a number of important elements, and will detail each of these into individual posts in the weeks that follow. Hope you enjoy!

  • HOOK YOUR READER: From the first line in your story, it is important to suck the reader in by showing immediate tension with your protagonist. Next week, I’ll discuss what first lines we should avoid, which are overused, and what ingredients grill up an exciting hook. However, this goes far beyond that introductory sentence. When is it appropriate to relax the tension? When should we begin to delve into back-story? At what points in our story should we re-hook the reader with another twist? How do we end it in a way that is both satisfactory to the reader, and leaves them craving for more? Stay tuned, and we’ll delve into the details.
  • AUTHENTIC CHARACTER EMOTION – FLAWS, GROWTH, ARCS, AND TRANSFORMATION OF PROTAGONISTS AND ANTAGONISTS: I’ve shown in previous posts how important character emotion is. Emotion links us to our characters, gives us a stake in the story, and makes us truly care about what happens – connects us to fresh and new experiences. Might even have an impact on our world outside of reading. In this topic, I’ll discuss at what points in our story we should show character growth, (or the lack of), and dig into how to make this experience truly impactful to the reader. We’ll review best practices and the art of taking our characters’ arcs to the next level – both protagonists’ and antagonists’. I’ll explain the differences between proactive, active, and reactive characters. We’ll also dig into this scientifically – showing outlines and how this relates to our plot elements and increases tension.
  • TENSION, CONFLICT, AND THE DRIVING FORCE: To keep the story moving and our readers impulsively flipping the pages into the wee hours of morning, it is imperative to show the steady progression of plot and characters, the enticing details of hazards and wrenches, and the difficulties and growth that ensues. Some good advice: the more we torment our characters, the more interesting the story. When should we ramp up the tension and conflict? When should we relax? Sub-plots are at times necessary, but many times they are not. It is important to consistently progress the storyline, and at the same time, show the little steps and interesting details that keep the readers holding their breath.
  • YOUR WORLD – DETAILS, CULTURE, AND SENSES: It is easy to bog the reader down with unnecessary details, or do the opposite and not show enough. Where is the balance? This depends a lot on the story, style, genre, characters, length, and voice. But it is always important to make the world we portray real to our audience. Here, we’ll delve into the finer details and examples of great stories with interaction – and the differences of styles and how they relate to the overall theme and story structure.
  • THE THREE ACTIONS – ACTION, REACTION, INTERACTION: Characters and the world, the reader and writer, the plot and details. In this topic, I will discuss how we put it all together with the “Three Actions.” I’ll show how they interrelate and the parallels between them. I’ll reveal why these elements are so important and how they impact the storytelling experience.
  • STORY STRUCTURE AND THEMES – OUTLINING VS “PANTSING”: Hundreds if not thousands of books crowd the market, all showing the best ways to structure a story. Here, we will dig into why there are so many different methods, which to use, which to avoid, and why. Is there a “best” way, or does it depend on the style of the author? Should we conform to what the world is telling us, or enhance our natural strengths? There is much controversy here, and I will take a neutral stance in order to show the broadest picture, explain why so many authors are adamant that their own opposing and conflicting views are correct, and give my advice on how to proceed in this vast sea of style.
  • PROSE WITH STYLE AND VOICE – CLARITY, BREVITY, AND WORD CHOICE: Writing is an art, but with any art, the more knowledge and experience one has, the more likely one will succeed. The broader our experiences and perspectives, and the more we open ourselves to possibilities and ideas, the more likely we will achieve our goals. Our work ethic matters. Our passions matter. We must know ourselves, stay in tune to our strengths and weaknesses, then actively make ourselves improve and grow. Grammar might seem basic, but the more knowledgeable one is, the more command one has of language – not to mention an understanding of which rules are breakable and when. In this topic, I will discuss the differences between character and author voice, and expand on the importance of the words we use, and how we use them. There are many styles of storytelling, and I will show examples of some of the most common, and analyze their differences.

Like many, I have a passion for storytelling, but I’m also acutely aware of my strengths and weaknesses. The elements of self-awareness, knowledge, patience, understanding, wisdom, and work ethic are all fruits that set me on my path to success. To grow as a writer is to grow as a person. I look forward to your future comments and interactions.

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 flew from Sacramento to Denver today, and during the flight, began considering the effects of traveling. Which got me thinking about characters in books. Naturally. (I know, I’m weird.)

Traveling is hard on the body and mind. Strange to consider, because all we’re really doing is sitting there, right? Wrong.

Anytime we’re taken out of our comfort zone, our subconscious heightens our sense of awareness. For some of us, the effect is more conscious. But the more we travel, and the more familiar the locations, the easier it is for our mind to predict. Thus, lowering our stress levels, and lessening exhaustion.

Traveling must be tiring for our characters also. It can be easy to see the plot, know what needs to happen, then write it. But, it’s important to reflect on how this impacts the characters. Are they accustomed to traveling? Are they used to the methods of traveling? Are they familiar with the locations they are traveling to? The journeys our characters take affect them, change them, mold them. But, how?

Look at yourself and consider the effects on you. When you take a trip, how exhausted are you when arriving at your destination? Or perhaps you’re so excited, adrenaline kicks in and you don’t feel the effects until the next day. Interesting, no?

Characters are people too! So write them that way. Show their exhaustion on their journeys. Show their excitement. Show how sore riding in a saddle all day makes them. Show them daydreaming while driving a great distance, then realizing with surprise that they’ve driven miles.

There are many ways to show the effects of travel, but above all, show their humanity. Show realistic emotions and reactions – this will create empathy and understanding. Create tension due to the stress of traveling.

How does this change them? You decide.

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.

Yesterday, I asked my three year-old daughter, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

She said, “Umm, I think a doctor or a fire chief, or even you, Dadda.”

Such a sweet moment. My heart warmed at the sentiment. Nothing is more important than family. But it also got me thinking. At what point in my life did I decide I wanted to be a writer?

Growing up, I had unrealistic dreams like any other normal kid. I wanted to be Superman. I wanted to play basketball for the NBA. When I got older, I wanted to be a professional singer. But when I got into high school, I started viewing the world differently – in a more realistic way. But still positively.

So NBA and Superman were out. I considered pursuing music and singing, but thought again. I didn’t want to be poor. So what other potential career paths did I feel I would love? I rolled it around in my mind and thought up a few possibilities: mechanical engineer, computer engineer, computer programmer, sniper for the military, nuclear physicist, math professor, music teacher.

But never once did I consider writing as a profession.

Yes, I always wanted to write a novel, but I took that as seriously as anyone else who wanted to someday write a book. I considered it would be more of a check-mark on my bucket list – like climbing Mount Everest or taking a pilgrimage through Africa.

So after college, I found myself in the military. Halfway through my four-year term, some friends introduced me to this game called Dungeons and Dragons. I was hesitant at first to try it out – as it was associated with only super-geeks, but I played anyway.

And fell in love with it.

That moment fired my passion for storytelling. Shortly thereafter, I decided to write a book for real. I got about two chapters in, and realized it was a D&D campaign, not a book. So I scratched that story, read a few series of Fantasy novels, and came up with a new idea.

That idea turned into a book. I finished it after my four-year term in the military, still unsure what I wanted to be when I grew up. I disliked what I did in the military, wasn’t passionate about what I learned in college, and wanted to try something fresh. However, writing novels still was not an option for me. Storytelling still excited me, but it didn’t appear I’d ever make any money at it.

Fortunately, I found a balance. Needing money to provide for my family, I quickly found a new job right out of the military, then eventually moved back to California. I discovered something I thoroughly enjoyed, which allowed me to make a decent wage – while allowing myself enough time to spend with the family and simultaneously, continue my writing.

I’ve previously posted about my journey of writing, how much I’ve learned and why, and the realization of being represented by an agent.

But it all started with a dream.

A dream that began late for me. I never thought I would be doing what I am today. Life throws unexpected curve balls and people change as they grow, finding new dreams, new hopes, new skills, and learning lessons that change value structures and entire belief systems.

I know I have changed, and I continue to grow. But that passion for storytelling still blazes in my soul. If you are a writer, and feel that passion, keep kindling that flame. Though I found mine later than some, that fire can never be extinguished.

Regardless of what happens during the process, if writing is something you love, don’t let others put it out. Don’t let self-doubt or opinions squelch that flame, because you will lose a piece of yourself. Grow, keep your mind open to change, open yourself to challenges that will continue to add kindling. Writing is an art, so find your voice, discover what you love about it, and grow.

Looking back to that question I asked my daughter yesterday, I can’t wait to see that passion in her eyes for what she loves, to support her as she grows, to help kindle that flame as she finds herself.

But she’s only three years old, and a part of me doesn’t ever want her to grow up.

Whatever passions I have, they’re all secondary to my family – something else I never saw as a younger man.

May you find what matters most to you, and protect what you love. Grow and adapt, keep your mind open to what the future might bring. Inspire those around you with your passions, and overcome your troubled feelings and obstacles without taking them out on others. I’ve discovered only one constant in this universe. Change. May we all make the best of it, because all matter eventually turns to dust.

I’m a nice guy. I like fuzzy critters, love my wife, and get all squishy when I think of my first child who is on the way. I can watch a Disney flick and feel uplifted or a comedy and laugh. Friends are awesome, and I live for a good hug.

But I have a dark side.

Despite my sweet disposition, I’ve always been pulled toward the shadowy, lurid, and nasty in literature. Don’t ask me where my fascination with the horrific comes from because I can’t tell you. I do know it’s been there as long as I can remember. My favorite book as a child, the one that now haunts me in implication, was an obscure Dr. Seuss with a melodramatic black and red cover. The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins is a simple story really. A poor boy in a long ago kingdom must remove his hat in respect for the king. Unfortunately, every time he takes his hat off another appears on his head. Well, there’s a serious downside for young Bartholomew. People who don’t remove their hats for the king get their heads chopped off. Green Eggs and Ham it ain’t. Why was I drawn to such a dark tale? I don’t know. My attraction just is.

Now, the biggest problem with loving horror is that most people don’t. They wonder why you want to feel bad when you read. Or they think you perverse as they imagine you entertained by death and gore in the same way they are entertained by American Idol.  Being a horror junkie is right next to porn perv on many people’s list of, “What the heck is wrong with you?” It can really get a gorehound down.

With reading, it’s not a huge problem. Reading is private. Reading is safe. When I’m asked about the nature of the book in my hand, a simple, “It’s horror,” is enough to send the majority of folks on their way with just a vague feeling of unease. And if they stay? Well then, they’re probably my people. They’ll get why I keep a list of the best, most awful books I’ve ever read (Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door tops it, by the way). The point is, when reading there’s only minor risk of judgment.

Writing is a whole different animal.

Your writing marks you in a way that reading does not. The words on the page are yours. They are fed by your experience, cobbled together in your mind, depend on your fingers for their existence. Yours. And when people judge it, they point a finger squarely at you. When I present images of torn panties and severed heads, strangled pets and devoured infants, incestuous mothers and child beating babysitters, well, I’m forced to own them. And there is risk in that. People conflate artist and art. Sick art means a sick mind, and illness makes many close the door. When I present my work I tend to wonder, “What must they think of me?”

But here’s the thing. Not everyone sees the art as sick, twisted, and wrong. I’ve had the same depiction of sexual assault derided as disgusting fantasy and praised as aggressively feminist, and I’ve had the same gore soaked scene called excessive and tame.

And therein lies safety.

Art only belongs to the artist until the moment it’s released to the world. From that point on, it belongs to the audience. It doesn’t matter if I intended a tale of bloody infanticide to create rumination on the nature of evil or just to shock the hell out of people. Once the audience has it, the rumination is theirs, the shock is theirs, the judgment is theirs. If they think your work is brilliant it’s because it appeals to something in their head, their heart. Alternatively, it’s their sense of perversity that makes your story excessive, not your excess as an artist. People may be angry at your story and furious at you for writing it, but that affront is their responsibility. The writer generates. Interpretation belongs to the audience.

So, here’s my advice on the choice to write extreme fiction. Be a channel for the stories that choose you as parent and stay secure in your own sense of who you are and what you intend. If you think you’re the next Richard Laymon, go for it. Forget about judgment. It’s out of your hands.

Building Character

Posted: January 19, 2013 by jennyleelee in Jenny's Words
Tags: , , , , ,

I was watching a movie with my daughter the other day and she turns to inform me that the villain in the plot was not nice and needed a time out. It occurred to me that my two and a half year old knew what behavior was acceptable, and what behavior warranted some “thinking time,” which ultimately tells me that we are wired to respond to the character of a person without realizing that we are responding to it. Which, of course, makes me really watch my own behavior as much as I possibly can because it’s not what I say that she’ll remember, but what I do in spite of my words.

Physical actions of character often dictate the inner qualities of a person. If I see a teenager open a door for an elderly couple, I automatically perceive the teenager as a thoughtful person. If I see a man and a woman holding hands and leaning into each other, I automatically perceive love and devotion.  If I see a kid breaking all things around him, I begin to wonder about the hurt that might fueling the wreckage.

It doesn’t take much to show character in real life–we do it without thinking–but in writing, it is a real challenge.

I love to read. I love the ability to leave my world and find myself in a place with someone else, to watch the world develop through their eyes. But, I absolutely hate it when an author describes what the character is feeling by nudging me and blatantly saying, “She is sad because the glass broke.” I would much rather see how the sadness creeps up over the person, and what that person fixates on during the emotion. Does the character cry? Does she hold back the tears? Does her body tremble? Do her ears pop? The point is that character is something that is demonstrated, not something that is told.

Building character within a person takes experiences and actions–the same goes with people in our stories. Give the characters a chance to breathe, to grow within their choices, to achieve some goals, and to fail to reach others. Give them life and have them react to the world that you’ve created for them. Maybe even have the same scenario for different characters, and watch how they react differently because of their own personal character traits.

My daughter’s wide eyes and enthusiasm for trying everything around her reminds me that character is more than just words and intentions, it’s what we do that really makes a person matter to everyone else. After all, communication of character is never about what a person promises, but what he follows through on.

Okay, maybe not a village, but it takes more than an individual. Or it should.

Yes, one person can write a story all on their own, but it’s foolish to think that they can get a decent finished book to print without any assistance.

Thanks to modern technology and the advent of vanity press, on demand printing, and ebooks, anyone can put their works out into the aether. However, this doesn’t mean that they immediately should once they’ve finished their 60,000+ word book. Traditional publishing can, and often does, take a year or two from the date the publisher says “Yes, we’ll publish you,” before the world sees you’re heart and soul laid bare on the page. During this time a team of people are being employed to make your book as best as possible. Hopefully. There’s agents, editors, copyeditors, cover designers, a marketing team, and many others you may never meet.

In my opinion there’s one more group of people that are essential. Beta readers. These are the first people who will see you’re work. They are your test audience to gauge how strong your story is and if there are any glaring errors in character and plot. The beauty of beta readers is that they can be employed at various stages in the writing process, whether or not you’re self-publishing or going the traditional route.

One of the issues I had when I started writing was that I was grossly mistaken in thinking I could write something worthy of print on the first go around. I figured that editors and others could fix whatever issues arose, if there even were any. One of my idols is Robert Heinlein, and one of my favorite stories is The Door Into Summer. It took him only 13 days to write and had very little editing. Granted it is one of his shorter works, but still, to have that skill. While I still hope to one day accomplish such a feat, I now realize how foolish I was to think I was at that level.

Writing is like any other art form. While there are those who will find they have a great knack for it, it still requires great amounts of time and dedication to become the best you can be. The beauty I find in writing is that it doesn’t have to be a solitary journey. You can get feedback along the way. The key is finding the right people who will assist you. You may have had people who’ve said you should write a story, but you should take a step back and ask yourself if you’re willing to do what is necessary, and if they actually mean it. Are they saying it out of politeness and just because you’re friends?

When it comes to finding beta readers you need to be subjective. Don’t just find people who will fan the flames of your ego and lead you into delusion. This is where a writing group can come in handy. If you can find the right one. There needs to be the right balance of ego stroking and constructive criticism.

Writing a book can be a traumatic experience as it is akin to baring your heart and soul to people you will never know. It can be crushing when someone says they don’t like your work, because it feels like they’re saying they don’t like you. Of course pleasing everyone is impossible and shouldn’t be your intention. There will inevitably be people who won’t like what you’ve written, but if you’ve done all that you can to write the best book possible, people who do like it should outweigh these mistaken fools.

In closing, I want to talk about the evolution of storytelling. Before written language we had speech, and I’m certain telling stories has been around almost as long. Without the written word these stories were passed down from one generation to the next verbally, and most assuredly changed and evolved in the process. If you’ve ever played the game telephone you’ll understand. In a way I think of beta readers as the evolution of this process, allowing the original author to tell a tale, get input from others, and then finish the tale while maintaining overall creative control, to an extent. Thanks to the internet and dedicated fans we now have fan fiction galore which carries on this ancient tradition.

There is also the creative commons licensing route in which the author grants others the right to adapt and alter their work legally. It’s a route I intend to explore with a couple stories in mind. One of my favorite actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt is leading the way and has created an online creative commons group, hitRECord,to explore all artistic endeavors. I highly suggest you give it a look.

So, it may not take a village to write a story, but it should be a journey shared with others.