Category Archives: My Thoughts
Like a stutter,
You draw the pen across the page, then blot it out.
It must must be perfect this time.
Does perfection exist?
Will you ever see him on the treadmill at the gym,
Or catch his shadow passing round the corner of Main Street?
Is anything perfect?
Are our spidery black marks on the paper flawless?
But, like a stutter,
They take a shape of their own,
And can become
Hey everyone. Do you know what day it is today? I just looked at the calendar… and it’s the 26th of September. Which means I’m scheduled to post in the TCWT blog-chain! Usually, by this time, I have my post ready-written and perfectly pedicured, manicured, with eyebrows plucked and all the wax out scraped out of the ears and burning brightly as candles. But today, unfortunately, due to my
swottish and procrastinatory tendencies important exams coming up, the day has somehow arrived without me having written post. So bear with me as I try to come up with something quick.
This month’s prompt is terrific: “What are your favourite book beginnings and/or endings?” This is a really interesting topic to consider, because beginnings and endings are a crucially important part of any story. Stuff this up, and chances are you’ve stuffed up the whole thing. On the other hand, get it right and you’ve gone a long way towards writing someone’s favourite book. So let’s go through and look first at some of my favourite beginnings, then some endings, and then at a couple of stories that did really well with both.
Thinking of favourite beginnings was much harder than I thought. I could think of heaps that were really good, but no absolute stand-outs. Nevertheless, I’ll give you a couple of my best picks, and try to pin-point at least part of why I liked them so much.
Of the books I’ve read recently, the one with the best beginning was probably Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Initially, what’s interesting about this novel is the narrator, Lockwood. A boring name for a boring guy, but even boring people can be interesting when a good writer tells the story from their point of view. In the first chapter, this city-bloke turns up on the bleak Yorkshire moors in a jolly good mood and imposes himself on the local populace (all the while claiming that he is an “exaggeratedly reserved” fellow). There, he immediately starts coming to wrong conclusions about everything. First, he decides that his landlord, Heathcliff, is a “capital fellow” when it’s obvious he’s anything but — and then he blunders around guessing who the young lady of the house might be married to (“Heathcliff, you’re wife? No?” “Your son’s wife then? No again?” “He’s not your son? Really?” “I’m asking too many questions?”)*. This works to get a bit of humour and conflict in the story early on, but the hinkiness of the narrator also establishes a certain air of mystery and uncertainty that really gets you hooked into the story. That air of mystery is cranked up to maximum when Lockwood is forced to spend the night at the Heights and has a series of bizarre dreams in which he is visited by ghosts. Clearly this place is haunted, not merely with ghosts, but with memories. And so the beginning draws us into the story, causing us, like Lockwood, to want to discover what these memories are.
Another beginning I loved was the beginning to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (by some famous author). There, rather than beginning with the main characters of the novel, we begin at the Riddle House (through a dream of Harry’s), where we learn about mysterious and evil goings-on that we know will impact on the events of the story. This heightens the sense of dread right from the start (all the more so because this is the 4th book in the series, and thus we understand many of the implications of the dream). After this dream, we cut to Harry, and the more mundane activities he is involved with, but we have that sense of fear and anticipation linked with the dream that draws us quickly through even the slower parts of the novel (which, admittedly, are virtually non-existent). In both Wuthering Heights and The Goblet of Fire, it’s that element of mystery from the beginning that is instrumental in drawing us into the story, and in creating a sense of tension and dread throughout the book.
Favourite endings were every bit as hard as favourite beginnings, but again I’ve picked a couple of excellent ones.
The first I’d mention is Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech. This was a wonderful book. Ultimately, it’s the story of a girl (Salamanca) trying to come to terms with her mother’s leaving, but this is bound up between the interweaving stories of Salamanca travelling across the United States with her grandparents, and the story she narrates to her grandparents as they drive — the story of her friend Phoebe, who’s own mother also left, but then came back. This story is a masterpiece of pacing: it unfolds slowly and beautifully, yet without dragging it’s feet, and the different sections of the story — past and present — reflect on each other while at the same time leaving many details obscured. And then, at the end, the last piece is placed in the centre of the jigsaw puzzle, and it all makes sense. Salamanca knew everything, she just didn’t tell us. (At this point you do feel slightly miffed as a reader, because she tells it to some random police officer after going through the whole book without tellingus.)
The second book I’d mention is The Lord of the Rings (by another famous bloke). This is, quite possibly, my favourite novel of all time, so it’s no surprise that it contains one of my favourite endings. I won’t say much about it, but I loved how the ending was expected, yet unexpected; completely foreshadowed, and yet a complete surprise. And how it so wonderfully proved the wisdom of Gandalf, because Gandalf is awesome.
I’ve given you a couple of my favourite beginnings and endings, now for a couple of stories that had great beginnings AND endings.
First — to move away from books, for a moment — let’s discuss one of my favourite films: Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. This film starts off horrifically. A man drowns in (what looks like) a big fish-tank, and another man, who is caught standing outside the tank, is sentenced for his murder. It’s a dark and creepy opening scene that immediately draws us into the dark and creepy story. From here, we dive into the past to work out how we got there, watching as a tale unfolds of the increasingly bitter rivalry between two 19th century stage magicians. The story has so many twists and turns, flash-backs and flash-forwards, that one quickly forgets which way is up, but it comes together in a remarkable conclusion that turns the film upside down (if you knew which way that was), and makes you realise that the beginning was even more horrific than you thought. It’s one of those films where it clicks at the end and everything suddenly makes sense. Indeed, this film was even better because there were two clicks at the end — as my friend put it: “they blow your mind, then they blow it again five minutes later”. The beginning and the end work together perfectly to create a fantastic, unified story that turns itself on its head.
And now, the final story I’ll talk about: Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now. I’ve chosen this book precisely because it has a very different kind of beginning and ending to The Prestige, and most of the others I’ve listed.Okay for Now doesn’t score by virtue of its fantastically mysterious opening, nor due to an ending that makes everything fall into place. Rather, what I love about this is how Schmidt achieves a fantastic unity of voice that is present from the first page to the last. It’s a simple, poetic, sympathetic voice that makes us love the narrator, Doug Swieteck as much as we loved Holling Hoodhood in the prequel (The Wednesday Wars) — maybe even more. Here’s how the story starts:
Joe Pepitone once gave me his New York Yankees baseball cap.
I’m not lying.
He gave it to me. To me, Doug Swieteck. To me.
Schmidt uses words tastefully and economically to very quickly build up a picture of who Doug is. “I’m not lying” is a refrain throughout the book, highlighting Doug’s struggle — growing up in a family of liars, with not being believed even when he tells the truth — while his fixation on Pepitone’s giving it “to me” highlights how unimportant he is to almost everyone.
By the end of this story many things have changed. Doug has transformed from a jerk to a really sympathetic character. He’s made many friends, and he’s gone from feeling almost totally unimportant to being very important to many people. And yet, he’s still the same guy, and he still speaks with the same voice. Here’s how the story ends:
And I’m not lying, I heard, all around us, over the sounds of the huge machines in the room, over the sounds of Apollo 11 heading to the moon, I heard, all around us, the beating of strong wings.
We’ve still got the same voice, and yet now there’s a sense of security and hope, even in the face of obstacles and even perhaps death. Now it’s “us” not “me”.
What did you think of those beginnings and endings? I think it’s clear from my selection there, that there isn’t really any formula for writing a great beginning or a great ending. Some great beginnings start by plunging you into a mystery, others just draw you in through a really interesting narrative voice. Some endings make you see the story in a whole different light, others wrap up delicately and touchingly. There’s no “right” way to do it, really. And isn’t that what makes it so much fun?
(P.S sorry I’m late — I couldn’t quite finish the blog-post yesterday, so now it’s early on the 27th and I’m a day late. Follow the blog-chain for some more thought-out and punctual posts.)
September 2014 blog chain prompt/schedule:
Prompt: “What are your favorite book beginnings and/or endings?”
8th – http://zarahoffman.com/
15th – http://miriamjoywrites.com/
and http://teenscanwritetoo.wordpress.com/ (We’ll announce the topic for next month’s chain.)
- Disclaimer: these are not direct quotes from the novel.
On Wednesday, I wrote a short story for a past exam paper question, in preparation for my end-of-school exams in October. The goal was to practice quickly writing a good story, as well as to produce something I might be able to adapt for my actual exam. The story I wrote, however — together with a Quora answer I read yesterday — did more than that. They taught me something very important about changing between points of view in a story, and about story-telling in general.
The question I attacked on Wednesday was this:
“Romanticism — a revolutionary search for feeling.” Using two imaginary voices, illustrate this concept.
Can you imagine opening your exam paper and finding yourself with just one hour to come up with a story for that question? Fortunately, for this practice, I was able to spend a good deal of time thinking about my story before I actually sat down to write. Nevertheless, I ran across a difficulty I had not anticipated. I found that changes in viewpoint character are really, really hard.
Before I tell you how I found it hard, let me tell you about the story I wrote. My story was set in Germany during the Napoleonic Wars (at which time the country was just a collection of un-unified states). A father and his son are passionately nationalistic and want to fight, not only to expel Napoleon, but eventually to unify all German-speaking peoples. However, a problem arises. Just as they are about to leave, the son falls very ill. The father leaves without him, and the son is left ailing at home. The story switches back and forth between the two characters (who take turns narrating in the first person) as they struggle to come to terms with the fact that the son won’t be able to fight.
So: how were the POV changes hard? Well, they were hard in that I found it very difficult to keep the story flowing through the changes. With each change, the story seemed to grind to a halt. There didn’t seem to be much reason for the narrative to keep moving.
Let me show you how I ended the son’s first turn of narration, and see if you agree:
“For now [for the time-being], I would observe the subtle beauties of the German country, and feel the pain, as great as the pain in my chest, that I could not fight for its unity.”
Now, leaving aside the fact that it’s a terrible sentence — really sappy, and clichéd, and boring, and all the rest of it — what’s wrong with that? Well, to me it sounds like the end of a story. It smacks of resignation. Everything has happened that will happen, the character has made all the actions he can make, and now he’s just resigned. Nothing is happening. There is closure.
That, I think, is exactly the problem — there is closure. The fact is, there shouldn’t be closure at this stage in the story.
There should always be unanswered questions, or problems that require not resignation but an active response. Resignation might be an alright emotion to finish up with (depending on the story), but it’s not an alright emotion to leave a character with if you ever mean to come back to him. If you want to come back, there has to be something happening for you to come back to.
So: right before you change POV, make sure something happens to your viewpoint character — something that demands a response. Don’t leave him sitting quietly in a garden.
Now, that would have been the extent of this post, if not for a brilliant answer I read on Quora yesterday which suggests that this applies much more broadly than just to POV changes. The question (which can be found here if you have a Quora account) was “How does one become a better story-teller?” and the brilliant answer I read was given by one Marcus Geduld. He gave many different tips in his answer, but two sections in particular related quite specifically to what I’d been thinking about. The first section was entitled “What happens next?” and the second was “Keep the mystery ball in the air”.
In “What happens next” Geduld points out a critical ingredient in story-telling — an ingredient that novice story-tellers (including me) often leave out. That ingredient is the creation of questions, and the delayed revelation of answers. To illustrate this concept, let me quote a section of his answer:
The number-one ingredient for a story is the tension of an unsolved mystery. Stories set up questions and delay answering them. The simplest example is a question in the first sentence with the answer delayed until the second sentence:
“You know who Bob’s favorite singer is? Meatloaf!”
That’s not a very interesting story, I know, but compare it to this:
“Bob’s favorite singer is Meatloaf.”
The first version evokes (just a little) tension. The second doesn’t.
Just a short snippet there, but the implications for story-telling are profound. It causes me to think, really, that the word “story-telling” is one big misnomer. You are not, in fact, telling the story — at least, not in the plainest, most straightforward manner. You giving the reader teases, little bites — inviting them to question what happens next. You are making them interested by not telling the story, and thus arousing their curiosity.
In his next section “Keep the mystery ball in the air”, Geduld expands on what he has said. This questioning, this evasion of directly telling the story, should continue throughout. From beginning to end, the story-“teller” has to engage the readers’ curiosity. So with every question that is answered, a new question must be asked. With every POV change, a mystery must be created surrounding the character we just left. With every moral dilemma solved, the character must be presented with a new moral difficulty. When there are no longer any questions, the story is over.
Going back to my practice short story — I was so disgusted with my first attempt that I went back two days later and tried again. This time, I mostly remembered to invoke questions at the POV changes. It’s still not a great story (and I was yet to read that Quora answer at this stage), but it’s an improvement. And I think the biggest improvement is the POV change I showed you before. The second time round, rather than having the son sit resignedly thinking about nature, I had him set off to join his father — despite his sickness. This is how I ended the segment the second time round:
“My breath comes sharp and painful. The ground swings crazily up to meet me with each step. My vision blackens. What is this? I wonder. Is this a weakness that can be overcome? My vision blacks out totally. Is this what dying feels like?”
Obviously, this still isn’t perfect. You can still tell that I’m writing at top speed, and that the story really lacks polish. But don’t you think it’s a much better way to leave my character than sitting resignedly in a garden? Which segment-ending would you rather come back to?
So story-telling, I think, is largely getting your reader to ask one long series of questions. Engage their curiosity. Ask: “You know who Bob’s favourite singer is?” “Is this what dying feels like?” Don’t give them closure until you’re done.
In the late 1920s, the talkie films were born. This was the new age. Suddenly, many of the old great silent actors couldn’t compete — all that miming and slapstick wasn’t much use any more. Others, who may not have had Charlie Chaplin’s propensity for silly faces, could now charm the audience with the power of their voice.
Dialogue is a tricky thing. Some people get it, others don’t. And it’s not just a challenge in talkie films, it’s a challenge in fiction writing.
Lately I’ve been thinking a good deal about dialogue. What role should it play in my writing? How can I get it to play that role? If I want to write good talkie novels (which I do) it’s essential that I get the hang of this. Today I’ll focus on that first question: “What role should it play in my writing”. Here are some of my thoughts.
To start with, I’ve realised that dialogue needs to serve a purpose. Well, duh, you say: everything should serve a purpose. And yet, too often, my dialogue serves no story purpose at all.
So what’s the goal of dialogue? I don’t want to box us in and create imaginary rules, but it seems to me that most of the time, dialogue serves one (or more) of three main objectives: to portray character, to advance the plot or to create a certain effect.
- The importance of dialogue to portrayal of character is difficult to overstate. In a well-written story, a character’s speech tells us so much about them. For one thing, their accent and grammatical choices can tell us about where they are from and about their socioeconomic background. We’ve got characters like Hagrid in Harry Potter whose accent tells us that he is rustic, outdoorsy and perhaps hasn’t had a high level of education, which seems to fit perfectly with his role as Hogwarts gamekeeper. (And I’m sure someone with a greater knowledge of Britain’s accents would be able to more accurately place his geographical heritage). But dialogue can be used to show so many other aspects of a character. Are they outgoing or shy? Are they smart or foolish — or smart in some areas and foolish in others? Are they friendly and caring for others or are they selfish? Are they “talkers” who say things they don’t really mean (think Isabella Thorpe, in Northanger Abbey)? Do their actions contradict their words (think Brutus, in Julius Caesar)? Do they have superstitions (think Basta, in Inkheart)? All of these aspects of character, and more, can be shown effectively through dialogue. So when you write dialogue, don’t let it just be random words that could have been said by anybody — use it to create a powerful image of a particular character.
- Dialogue can also be handy in advancing the plot. This is usually because it allows the characters to discover new information — information that radically alters the course of the story. Think of Radagast arriving in An Unexpected Journey and telling the company about the evils in Mirkwood. Or Gale’s words to Katniss at the climactic close to Catching Fire, providing the plot-twist that catapults us into the final book. If you can advance the plot through dialogue, do so. (Nevertheless, not all plot advancement needs to — or indeed, should — be precipitated by dialogue).
- A final purpose of dialogue is to create or perpetuate a particular effect that the author wants their story to possess. In some stories, this is a sober, chilling effect — think of the The Dark Knight Rises: “it will be very painful… for you”. In other stories, the author wants to go for a humorous effect, and dialogue is an important means of creating that humour — think of Harry Potter, where jokes told by the likes of Fred and George go a long way to providing welcome laughs in a pretty dark story.
These three objectives are each, on their own, very important in a story, but dialogue can be used most effectively if it helps us meet multiple objectives simultaneously. Sometimes, the sole purpose of piece of dialogue is to develop character, or advance the plot, or create humour. Most great dialogue, however, will do two of those, or even all three. If you’ve read Catching Fire, think again to the ending: that last piece of dialogue doesn’t just catapult us into the final book, it also shows something about Gale’s character — and it perpetuates the grim, suspenseful tone of the series.
Now — and this, I’ve realised, is important — though dialogue should always serve a purpose, the fact that it does serve a purpose doesn’t meet it belongs. Sometimes, all of the things accomplished by dialogue can be accomplished even better without it. I learned this lesson in the short story / novella I wrote this year. At one stage, I tried to introduce a new character, together with an associated plot-point, through dialogue. The dialogue served the purpose of character development and plot advancement to an extent, but after a while I realised it still wasn’t the best thing to do. In the end, I decided to use narrative exposition to introduce the character and the situation, both because it would make things clearer for the audience and because it would contribute to the darkly reflective tone of the story.
In the end, then, for dialogue to be successful, it needs to serve a purpose and it needs to serve that purpose better than straight-out exposition, or any other means. This seems like a no-brainer, but I think too often I rush into writing dialogue without considering whether it’s necessary. My goal is to be more discriminatory in my use of dialogue, and while this won’t happen overnight (certainly not in my first drafts — and I’m okay with that), hopefully in time I’ll perform this discrimination subconsciously. Talkies are tough, but I don’t want to be a silent actor.
This has been Talkies, Part 1. Come back in a week or two for Talkies, Part 2.
Which fictional world would you most like to be a part of, and what role do you think you would fulfil within it?
For those of us who have long suffered high fantasy addiction — who, when we were young, imagined finding Narnia at the back of the wardrobe (though it never worked); who reeled in shock with Bilbo when a throng of dwarves appeared on his doorstep; who have drifted to Hogwarts in spirit when our own studies grew too dull — for us, this prompt has done nothing to help break our addiction. It has caused us to want to prove, rather — for better or worse — that fancy can cheat so well as she is famed to do, and that perhaps she is not so deceiving an elf after all.
The question of what world I would like to be a part of is not easy. Earlier bloggers have pointed to the inherent undesirability of most of these worlds — stemming from the high risk of being murdered by a fellow teenager, placed under an excruciatingly painful curse by an unsociable wizard, or living under the shadow of a villainous eye who raises hordes of ugly elf-mutations for the purposes of world domination.
While all of these are certainly drawbacks, I think this stereotype of fictional worlds is unfair. Take Narnia, for example. In The Last Battle, Jewel the Unicorn explained to Jill Pole that “In between [the visits of the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve] there were hundreds and thousands of years when peaceful King followed peaceful King”. I think this is representative of fictional worlds in general: most of them aren’t really any worse than our earth. Thus, what I am really looking for is the world with the most depth, the most three dimensionality, the most interesting qualities in general.
Considering these factors, the world I decided on is Middle-earth. That land may have been the setting of many long and terrible wars, but in between those wars were long periods of peace, where men lived for long generations in relative happiness and prosperity. And Middle-earth is a land of such incredible depth; such rich and varied history; such sublime beauty (even if I wasn’t studying Romanticism just now). Of all the worlds I have ever read about, Middle-earth is certainly the most three dimensional and the most large-as-life. I would love to live in the realm of King Aragorn II, in the period following the Great War of the Ring.
So Middle-earth is the world that I choose, but what is my occupation? What role do I fulfil in Middle-earth? This part of the question was harder to answer. It started me thinking of things I like to do in the real world: could they be transferrable to Middle-earth? What skills would King Elessar need in his realm that I can offer? What skills do I have that are scarce in his kingdom?
I like writing, but there are writers enough in Middle-earth. Maths is cool, but I wouldn’t want a career based solely on Maths. History is fascinating, but how could I compete with the elves, having experienced so little?
What about Economics? I started studying Economics this year (in the real world) and it’s great. That wonderful subject that is all about common sense — about the choices people make because they simply can’t have everything in life. Surely Aragorn needs a good economist in his empire? Maybe, with study, I could be that economist. Even if I can’t predict anything that is going to happen, at least I can explain to the King why it happened, afterwards.
I would live in a lodge in the mountains west of Minas Tirith and commute to work in the city each day. Imagine how much fun it would be, being an economist in Middle-Earth:
“King Aragorn, after all those years of war against the East, your human capital is poor. I suggest you allocate more funds towards setting up schools in your Kingdom.”
“King Aragorn, you really must get rid of these tariffs on gold, gems and mithril from Erebor. All you are doing is making these things more expensive for your citizens — and encouraging Erebor to increase tariffs on our wheat and corn in retaliation. Globalisation — I mean, Middle-earth-alisation — it leads to lowest prices and greatest choice in goods and services for all of us.”
“King Aragorn, that big ugly new mill built by Ted Sandyman in Hobbiton is a prime example of a negative externality. It is beneficial for Sandyman to have his big mill right in town, and it’s beneficial for his customers in that flour is cheaper, but it has made Hobbiton a nastier place to live in for everybody! I suggest that you tax him in order to simulate the cost to the ambience of Hobbiton. Either that or … screw taxes, just shut him down already! I don’t like that guy.”
As you can see, being an economist in Middle-earth would be brilliant. Even if, due to his great wisdom, Aragorn would have done everything I suggested anyway. Even if, due to my encouragement, Aragorn lowers interest rates (with help from the Reserve Bank of Arnor), which contributes to a hobbit-hole price-bubble which bursts, precipitating a
global Middle-earthal financial crisis. (Well, I don’t think Aragorn would let that happen. He’d be too wise to follow any of my not-so-good advice.)
Even so, I’d be busy as a dwarf in a goldmine, and as happy as one too… for a while. But then my fiftieth birthday would arrive, and I would grow restless.
Forget inflation rates, I want to see ents … and oliphaunts … and elves, sir.
So I would pack my bags and leave Gondor. I would visit the forest of Fangorn and drink a draught or two with Treebeard. I would travel to Laurelindorenan and join the elves, singing under the stars. And I would cross over the Misty Mountains cold, and come to Rivendell, the first homely house. There I would eat and sleep and tell stories and sing — and at times just sit and think.
What world did others choose? Follow the blog-chain to find out!
4th December ~ Against the Shadows
5th December ~ Deborah Rocheleau
6th December ~ The Little Engine That Couldn’t
7th December ~ Relatively Curious
8th December ~ The Magic Violinist
9th December ~ Laughing at Live Dragons
10th December ~ This Page Intentionally Left Blank
11th December ~ Kira Budge: Author
12th December ~ Brooke Reviews
13th December ~ Next Page Reviews
14th December ~ Susannah Ailene Martin
15th December ~ Musings from Neville’s Navel
16th December ~ Mirror Made of Words
17th December ~ Woah!
18th December ~ Lily’s Notes in the Margins
19th December ~ Tara Therese
20th December ~ Please Forget My Story
21st December ~ An MK’s Meandering Mind
22nd December ~ Miss Alexandria
23rd December ~ Unikke Lyfe
24th December ~ Miriam Joy
This is the first in what will hopefully be a series of posts aimed at helping me (and you) to save time. I fully realise the irony of world-class time-waster Leinad writing this series, but really what I am doing is trying to identify my own bad habits so that I can correct them. If someone else can benefit too, that’s a plus.
Today I want to talk about the dangers of writing overly thorough outlines. I am not talking primarily about writing outlines for works of fiction (I suspect, with fiction, the “correct” amount of outlining varies incredibly from person to person and from story to story). Instead, I am talking about writing outlines for school essays, blog-posts or whatever else you may be writing that requires a structured and logical approach. The common advice we hear is that we should outline so that our writing is structured and logical. But like so much good advice, taken too far to the extreme, this is bad advice. I have a tendency to take it to that extreme.
A typical two page English essay, for me, might take somewhere around 4 hours. This would be taken up by:
- thinking about the question
- jotting down points that could be used to answer the question
- trying to think how best to organise these points
- writing a brief chronology (one point per paragraph)
- writing a very detailed outline
- following the outline to write the essay
- giving the essay a quick edit (but only a quick edit because by this stage I’m running behind on my schedule)
In the end, my four hours gets me a pretty average essay. Not only does everything move slowly but, because everything moves so slowly (ostensibly for the sake of increasing quality), my mind has time to wonder to other matters, not related to the essay, slowing things down further. Two important things have to change.
The first thing that has to change (this is before I even begin) is that I have to move more quickly with my thoughts. Go into brainstorm mode. Don’t sit placidly waiting for the profound thought to come to you, chase the profound thought over hedges, through weeds and into ditches and don’t stop till you catch it. If you wait for profundity to come to you, you’ll be swamped by irrelevant and dangerously unproductive thoughts. (Think of Frodo: if he goes on to Rivendell by himself, he’ll find Gandalf — if he waits for Gandalf, all he will get is Black Riders)
The second important thing is not to write an outline which is a “For Dummies” book about my essay. After all, am I such a bad writer that I cannot write a good essay unless I’ve already half-written it in the form of the outline next to me? In practice, what this means is that I should vastly truncate step 5.
In September, for pretty much the first time, I had to write several essays in exams. In each of these essays, I wrote only an extremely brief outline (basically the brief chronology mentioned in step 4). Did this cost me dear in the quality of my essays? Not at all. I received full marks on the essay in my History exam, for which I had 60 minutes to handwrite probably 1200 – 1300 words. This was significantly better than I had scored on other history essays during the year where I had spent many, many hours planning, researching, outlining, writing and editing. Thus, while some kind of an outline is important (depending somewhat, even in non-fiction, upon your personal style), the actual writing is of far more consequence. We know how to write, so all we need is a brief reminder of our topic and of the main points we will use to support our viewpoint on that topic.
This is probably all complete common sense, but believe it or not I have got it wrong again and again. Maybe you don’t have the same problem as me. If so, don’t take this post as a warrant for stripping back the time you spend outlining if you don’t need that. Too much planning and you waste time, but no planning and your essay could turn out as long-winded and unfocussed as this post. The moral of the story is not “plan less” but “plan the right amount”. Usually I plan too much; for this post, in an attempt to shrug off all hypocrisy, I didn’t plan enough.
Also, beware of the Black Riders.
I think sometimes we over-fictionalise fiction.
I am not talking about our tendency to write wholly outlandish or unrealistic stories. I am not bashing high fantasy, or science-fiction, or Roald Dahl. In fact, I am not talking about ways in which we try to make our stories too interesting by forsaking reality, rather I’m talking about the ways in which we let our stories become boring by failing to capitalise on the amazing things that happen in real life.
Specifically, today I want to talk about this in relation to characters. I’ll tell you straight up: I write terrible characters. Nearly all of my characters seem, to me, to be flat, boring personas who walk around saying obvious or irrelevant things and who can’t so much as crack a joke. I have never succeeded in writing a Dustfinger or a Boromir or a Neville Longbottom — not even a Fred or George Weasley.
Why is this? I expect there are many reasons, but I think a major reason is that I have failed to appreciate and to capture the wonderfully wide variety of characters I have encountered in real life.
You may feel like you have had a relatively dull, uninteresting life. But when you think about it, you will probably find that you can tell far more interesting stories, far more fascinating pieces of information about your life, than you thought you could. They may not be stories which will change your listener’s life, but if you tell them right, they will certainly keep people interested. What about the fascinating people you have met? How many interesting people are there in your life?
What about the man you’ve met who knows at least thirty languages, possibly closer to fifty? What about your friend who was deposited out of the window of his car when it flipped over several times, but was unhurt? What about the pastor of your church who came third in a beer brewing competition?
You could get even more basic — rather than thinking of the fantastic accomplishments or fascinating stories, think of personalities.
What about the lady who always seems to be talking? If you tell her a story, she’ll always have a similar story or experience to tell straight back to you. Or what about your grandmother who feeds you nonstop every time you go to visit her? Every time she sees something she thinks you’ll like “on special”, she’ll buy it and send it to you — though you live thousands of kilometres a way. Or what about your grandmother’s friend who is equally generous? She is very old and overweight, has multiple joint issues, a weak heart, and yet continues to cook “Meals-on-Wheels” for people frequently. And, interestingly, she drives pretty fast. (contradictions are key to interesting characters)
All of these are people that I know, despite the fact that I used the second person, but I’m sure you can think of just as many fascinating people with fascinating stories that you know. Now that I’ve got started I can think of so many more.
Once you realise the rich reality that you are faced with, you may be able to better incorporate that into your fiction. As David Corbett says in his article “How to craft compelling characters”, “the best inspiration often comes from within us—and from our experiences with people in our lives”. In other words, take all those fascinating people, those wonderful idiosyncrasies, those fantastic stories, and use them to inspire your fiction. Give your imagination some material to work with — use your imagination to aid and abet and transform the rich experiences of real life into something new, but something just as authentic and exciting.
Just as we should take advantage of those wonderful real-life characters in order to inspire our fictional ones, so should we take advantage of our own real-life thought-processes and emotions in order to write realistic and powerful thought-processes and emotions for our characters. In the same article, David Corbett says “It often surprises me how frequently writers, especially young writers, fail to explore the rich veins of emotion they possess in their own lives, so they can translate that to their characterisations”. He recommends thinking about important emotional experiences we have had so that we can create them more effectively in our characters. For example, think about your “moment of greatest fear”, your “moment of deepest shame” and your “worst failure” — and think about more positive emotional experiences too (if you plan to give your character any). It seems to me that even if the low-point that the character in your novel experiences is wholly fictional, you can make it far more powerful by thinking of your own feelings during similar (if much less severe) situations.
So I think there are two applications of this post for me. Firstly, I want to take greater note of the personalities, the idiosyncrasies, and also the stories of people I know. Possibly I’ll write portraits describing them or even short stories involving them. In this way I will become keenly aware of how fascinating real-life people are, and I can build on that to make far more interesting and realistic fictional characters. Secondly, I need to think more about how I would feel in my characters’ shoes. More specifically, it would be good to think of situations that I would find very difficult — very shameful, very fear-inspiring, or whatever — and try to put my characters in those situations. Show no mercy to your characters. The day when my reader’s gut is wrenched because they actually care about my character, and the things my character suffers actually means something to them — that day I will consider myself to be a half-decent writer.
I hope that this post is as useful for you as it has been for me. For some reason I have written it predominantly in the second person, even though these are ideas for myself more than for anyone else. If you have any thoughts on this, please do comment. You may also like to read the David Corbett article, linked to both here and above, which I found quite useful even though his commonly used Blanche Dubois illustration fell flat, me never having read the book.
One day, when I was nine, I felt inspired. I decided that it was time I wrote a novel, so in a short space of time I thought up a world, developed a very general storyline, and got going. Eight months later: ta-da! I had my very first completed novel. Since then, I’ve done it about four more times. Each time, I’ve been relatively spontaneous: I may have picked a general setting and story-line up to a few weeks beforehand, but I didn’t do much pre-planning. And other than NaNo WriMo pep-talks, I certainly had no novel-writing instruction. But now for the first time, six years on from that first attempt at glory, I’m going to do it differently: I will take lessons on how to do it. I’m going to do the One Year Adventure Novel.
Compared to the NaNo WriMo, this thing is so different. The NaNo WriMo is to get people to sit down and write: you “win” if you achieve your word-count goal; quality doesn’t matter. So you churn it out. When I did the NaNo WriMo last year, I wrote 32 k and I’m sure I didn’t spend more than 30 hours on it in total. For the One Year Adventure Novel I’ll probably have a similar word-count, but there are 3 lessons of about an hour each (a bit more for us, because my sister and I tend to chit-chat…) for about 30 weeks. That makes for nearly 100 hours. Where do the extra 70 hours go? Into planning, planning, and more planning.
Another way in which this differs greatly from the NaNoWriMo, is that the story options are limited. Rather than being allowed to write anything we want, Daniel Schwabauer, the video-teacher, tells us things that we can and can’t do with our novel. This is supposed to make things easier, based on the quote “boundaries inspire creativity”. The three major restrictions that we have so far are (1) the story must be of the “Heroic Quest” genre: such as, for instance, The Lord of the Rings – rather than “the Man who Learned Better” genre, like A Christmas Carol, or “Boy gets Girl”, like Pride and Prejudice. (2) The hero must be roughly my age. (3) It has to be in the first person.
These restrictions are in place mainly to make it easier for beginning authors to write – and to write something good. I had no problems with doing a Heroic Quest novel, and the protagonist probably would have been close to my age anyway, but having to write in the first person seemed at first to be a stringent limitation. But I am trying to reconcile myself to the idea: having written five novels in the third person, surely it is time to try something different. Thus so far, none of the restrictions have been strict enough that they seem like a real drawback to the program. And you learn so many awesomely helpful things!
Yesterday’s lesson was on five elements that I should have in my novel(s):
(1) Someone to Care About.
(2) Something to Want.
(3) Something to Dread.
(4) Something to Suffer.
(5) Something to Learn.
I won’t go into them in detail, at least not today, but it is very useful to have all these things in mind while you are crafting the story. In the past I haven’t thought about these things as I wrote; so some stories didn’t have all thee elements. Probably the element I struggle with most is “Someone to Care About”. Most of my protagonists are to be fairly average Joes, but adventures just happen to them. This time I want to make my story more character driven: I want Joe (actually his name’s Alan but anyway…) to make a conscious decision to face danger — otherwise we won’t be that likeable. He doesn’t even need a stereotype brave guy — he could be like Rowan of Rin — he just needs to face his fears. On the other hand, I don’t want to make Joe too perfect, because then I’m afraid he won’t learn anything. At the moment I’m trying to think of a good flaw to give him so that he can overcome it…
Indeed, today is when I will get the chance to sort these things out — because today’s lesson is “Someone to Care About”. So I’ll think of these things while I do science. I don’t know how writing in first person will affect this though — it might make it harder. One would think it would be easy to be intimate with the protagonist in the first person, but paradoxically, the opposite sometimes seems to be the case. The main character often becomes more of a lens through which you see the rest of the story: and you don’t focus on the lens, the lens helps you to focus on everything else.
Anyway, hopefully this newfound knowledge will translate into a good novel; but it’s entirely possible that I’ll drown in it all and write a shocker. I think what is most likely to bring me down, however, is the fact that I don’t know what I’ll learn, or what I’ll be told to do or not to do. Because of this, I’m more detached from my novel than usual, mainly thinking about it during lesson time — rather than when I’m having a shower or washing up. On the whole though, I’m pretty optimistic about this — and after all, I’ve got a whole year to do it. That should help shouldn’t it?
Recently, I have spent a decent chunk of time reading various online blogs. These blogs are not about any specific subject, but they are all the work of teens who love writing and excel at it: so I find them highly entertaining, and spend too much time reading them. At times I have wondered whether this habit of mine is becoming a more refined substitute for a computer-game or television addiction (albeit a mild one). Should I unsubscribe from these blogs and break the habit?
But today, when I was thinking about this, I realised that I have learnt a lot of useful things in my time subscribing to blogs. And I have never thought that learning useful things was a waste of time. As long as I am efficient with my blog-reading then, I have decided, it is actually quite a good thing to do. It is not time wasted – it is time in which I learn, and I think. As long as I don’t read posts while I am trying to concentrate on Science, or think out long-winded comments (which never eventuate) while I’m trying to read a book, time spent reading well-written and thought-provoking blogs is time well spent. From taking in all this knowledge, I will eventually gain wisdom; and wisdom is awesome.
I have learnt so many things from the blogs I have read: I have learnt about writing in third person omniscient; I have learnt that it is better not to “info-load” your readers with description, but to work description into the flow of the story; I have learnt that it is good to tighten sentences where possible; I have learnt the difference between an introduction, a prologue, and a first chapter; I am learning how better to review and analyse books (though I still suck at it) by watching the experts do it. In these and so many other topics I have gained knowledge from my fellow teens. Do I still think I am wasting time? So long as I keep things efficient — and don’t follow every blog that exists — the answer is definitely no.
And since mere head-knowledge never did anyone any good, I will continue to write my own blog — to put some of this stuff into practice.
I don’t know whether this is a quote from somewhere, or whether it has come to me with relative originality, but there is a line that has been going through my mind quite a bit lately: “There is no one quite so dangerous as a smart fool.”
“This is self-contradictory!” You might be thinking. But really, nearly all super-villains fall into this category. They are smart: they can hatch cunning plans and command armies, dictate nations — but they fail to realise what is truly important.
Smart fools are sprawled all over The Lord of the Rings: Sauron, Saruman, even Denethor…. They were all greatly learned people, and yet they gradually became deluded: they failed to realise what was right — and ultimately, what would prevail. They remained smart, even after their morals melted away; even after they tricked themselves into believing what was untrue. Indeed, in the case of Sauron and Saruman they could never have built up so much power had they not retained their cleverness. And yet, ultimately, they were fools.
Take the Harry Potter series. Tom Riddle was a very smart person: he was the Hermione of his day. He was prefect and then Head-Boy; he was able to delude all his teachers into liking him (except Dumbledore); he could perform very high level magic — magic powerful enough to terrorise the entire wizarding world in Britain. But he was a cold-hearted fool; he never understood the most important things in life: “Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped.”
Smart fools can be contrasted with stupid fools. Stupid fools can get into drunken brawls; they can bully – they can cause a great deal of harm and suffering. But they won’t achieve it on the same scale of the smart fool. The thug down the street may have killed one man before he was carted off to jail. Adolf Hitler, a cleverer man, killed six million Jews before he realised his empire was crumbling, and killed himself too.
Of course, the wise have the potential to be dangerous too. Gandalf cleared this up for Gimli:
Gimli said, “But you speak of him as if he were a friend. I thought Fangorn was dangerous.”
“Dangerous!” cried Gandalf. “And so am I, very dangerous … And Aragorn is dangerous, and Legolas is dangerous. You are beset with dangers … for you are dangerous yourself, in your own fashion. Certainly the forest of Fangorn is perilous – not least to those that are too ready with their axes; and Fangorn himself, he is perilous too; yet he is wise and kindly nonetheless.”
But the wise do not go around being dangerous for no reason. Gandalf — and Aragorn and Legolas and Gimli — while they are not ones to cross, are not a threat to the peace and well-being of society: rather they used their very dangerousness to enforce peace. Aragorn spent a great deal of time in the vicinity of the Shire — not to exploit the jolly, simple hobbits, but to protect them.
The reason smart fools are so dangerous is because they have the brains to conquer the world, coupled with the mindset that conquering the world is the best thing for them to do. They do not mind what they do to people, so long as they get what they want. So they are a terrible danger to all in their way.
Thus, beware the smart fool. (except when you’re trying to think up a worthy villain).