Category Archives: Plot Thots & Profiles

The hows & whys of my novels’ characters, and the decision process that gets me from A to Z.

Pixar’s Rules of Storytelling

Recently I came across Pixar’s rule #19, quoted in James Scott Bell’s book, “How to Write Short Stories (and use them to further your writing career)”.  It’s an excellent book, and one of a few of his I’ve got in my Kindle collection.  But this rule reminded me of the whole list, full of good advice for storytellers whether their format is film or novel (from flash fiction to tome).  Most writing advice boils down to things like focus, self-discipline, detail work, and honing one’s craft to the best it can be – and that is an on-going process, a habit, an addiction.  It needs to be a passion.  Honing our craft means covering all the bases – grammar, syntax, plot, character, vocabulary, pacing, theme-building, and so, so, much more!  If you’ve got a weakness in your writing skills, the good news is that you can always improve it!  Make it a strength!  So be inspired, and keep writing!

Pixar's Writing Rules

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POV

POV is shorthand in the film industry for “point of view” – in that context, it has to do with not only the narrative context but also the camera angles and editing process.  Changing the POV can affect the way the audience – or readers – perceive a character, an event, or the overall atmosphere of a scene.

Mark Twain - History's Ink is Fluid PrejudiceRecently I was watching a history documentary series from BBC called, “British History’s Biggest Fibs”, with Lucy Worsley.  The basic point of the series is that history is subjective; whoever wins gets to name the battles, and shape future generations’ perceptions about events; the victor gets to smooth over their own weak points and play up their heroism for posterity.  PR and spinning a good yarn helped to shape how reigning kings were perceived and toppled, or usurpers could style themselves as “successors”.

When writing a novel, the POV can drastically change a scene either from the inside, or the outside, or both; by that I mean that either the scene itself changes “camera angles” to tell the story from a slightly different perspective, or that something within the scene shifts slightly, affecting the reader’s perceptions of characters or events in the scene.  For example:  I was reading through a particular scene in my current manuscript that I knew I wasn’t happy with, but couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was that bothered me aside from the outcome.  The scene involved an unjust flogging aboard a Royal Navy ship.  The officer on duty was forced by the captain to either flog the innocent man or be punished worse in his stead.  The original scene played out with the officer carrying out the punishment unwillingly but obediently.  The scene’s purpose is to show the gradually decaying grip on reality in a captain going insane; I wanted a stronger contrast, and so I tweaked the dialogue, which changed the outcome:  The officer refuses to punish the innocent man and takes the punishment on himself.  This outcome builds far more tension among the crew, gives grounds for retribution against the true instigator (a snivelling King John’s man of a junior officer), and contrasts the honourable dealings of the officer on duty against the captain’s failing sense of right and wrong.  By shifting the scene slightly, I take the reader and myself down a much steeper path.

POV - Screenshot Marvel's Avenger'sIn this illustration from Marvel’s Avengers film series, the camera angle chosen gives much more of an adrenaline rush than, say, if you were passively watching from off to the side; the fact that the arrow’s flying straight at you gives the scene that extra “kick”.

If you find yourself staring at one of your scenes – or even an entire premise of your story – that you’re not satisfied with, trying shifting the POV (sometimes it helps me to refer to it as the “camera angle”).  Put your inner eye’s camera in a different position in the scene, and see if that unlocks the key to improving that scene, the story arc or a character’s arc.  Keep writing!

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Interconnectivity

interconnectivity-internet

Interconnectivity

This weekend I led a singing workshop; at the time I was focused on the instrument as such, and the amazing, complex expressions the voice can produce.  I covered topics like anatomy, and the psychology of singing, as well as techniques and choices – the “paint palette” a singer can learn and use to produce a desired impact on the listener, painting an image before the mind’s eye through the choice of vocal colour and tone.  For me, the truest sense of interconnectivity in the context of vocals is that they are an expression not only of an individual’s anatomical uniqueness but also the personality, and even the spiritual condition.  I believe that we are created in the image of God – that is, a trinity:  We are body, soul, and spirit; and as such, when one area is facing challenges it will affect the other two areas, as well as the expression of the voice, tone, attitude and even the extent of the performer’s control over their vocals at any given moment.  [I also touch on this topic in my article about layering.]

Afterwards, the writer’s side of my brain kicked in and I began thinking of such things in terms of character development.  As I build a character’s profile, something must challenge that character or they’ll come across as flat and lifeless.  If a character had a traumatic experience with water as a child, they may have to face their fears through swimming across a lake, or getting into a rickety boat; if they’ve been abandoned by a parent, they may need to recognise a paralysing fear that keeps them from committing to relationships, and their arc may have primarily to do with overcoming that fear or not – it may be a side issue, but it will still add depth and humanity to the character.

Whatever weaknesses or challenges I decide on for a given character will guide the story to some extent; they will also influence their attitudes, responses and reactions in connecting with other characters.  These things will in turn influence the way they dress (rebellious, reserved, bold, fearful, quirky to keep people at a distance, etc.), the way they might walk or talk, or certain quirks like mannerisms or ways of speaking.  I might go through a list of a hundred related items (if they’re the main character, especially) to narrow down who the character is, even though most of it might not make it into the final cut.  The more I understand my character, the more consistent their responses, dialogues and actions will be throughout the story.

I just thought I’d share these thought processes with you, in the hopes that they can inspire you in your own characters’ developments.  Give them challenges, and find ways they can overcome (or be temporarily overwhelmed) in the midst of other more pressing issues, and (if you’ve chosen the path of hero-success over hero-failure) still find a way for them to triumph in the end.

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Wordless Wednesday no. 17: Architectural Inspirations #1 – Fantasy

 

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March 1, 2017 · 5:28 AM

Imagination vs Knowledge

Some say that imagination is more important than knowledge; to a certain extent, that may be true because imagination leads to new discoveries, inventions, and revelations.  But knowledge is often the basis for such discoveries; that which has been passed down by others who’ve researched, discovered, identified and recorded are the foundational stones upon which things are often built, whether in science, technology, or life in general.

beware-of-the-half-truth-wrong-halfIn this day and age, however, sometimes imagination overtakes knowledge (or simply ignores it).  An informed mind is a powerful tool; an uninformed mind can be a dangerous weapon.  This is true whether writing non-fiction, fiction, or passing on something on social media.  We should beware of the half truths – we may have gotten hold of the wrong half.

It’s now more important than ever to test the veracity of reports and even images; anyone can make an ass out of an angel, so to speak, with photoshop, et al.  How much misinformation is spread by simple carelessness or wilful misdirection (that includes, unfortunately, mainstream news media)?  Or by assuming that since something is from a trusted friend it must be true?  How often have you gotten upset by an article you’ve seen and commented on it, or passed it on, allowing it to form an opinion in your subconscious at the very least, and in your active thoughts at worst, only to find out later that it was a false report, a hoax, or sloppy journalism?

abraham-lincoln-internet-quote

As you probably know, I love to learn; I have a steel trap of a mind for little bits of trivia, like the fact that certain microbes concentrate and disperse (read “poop”) gold, or that all living creatures, including you and I, emit visible light (probably a byproduct of biochemical reactions).  As a writer of fiction that comes in handy; I can extrapolate knowledge and use it as a plot detail or a character quirk; but when I’m writing a blog, e.g. about a historical detail, I want to make sure I get it right.  A case in point was an article I wrote in 2014 about post-mortem photography in the Victorian period; it was by far the most popular post to date on that blog and continues to generate interest.  In particular, two points from the article were addressed, researched, and edited/corrected either in the article itself or in the comments and discussion that ensued.  Mistakes happen, but when I catch them, I will do my best to correct them!

For writers, it is important to cross-reference anything you find online, especially if you’re basing something significant on it such as character development, location, or plot.  Assumptions can also get you into trouble; I know that Geneva is part of Switzerland, but in writing 18th-century fiction, I need to be aware of the fact that it was merely an ally of the Swiss Confederacy from the 16th century, but only became part of Switzerland in 1814.  Any reference I have to it in my trilogy needs to reflect that fact.

I recently read a collection of short stories on Kindle, and on nearly every single Kindle page there were mistakes (that adds up to a lot of mistakes per manuscript page!):  Missing words that the authors assumed were there, typos, commas 2 or 3 words off-position, stray quotation marks, and countless words they assumed were the correct ones but obviously were not (e.g. catwalk instead of rampart for a castle).  This is where imagination overtook the writer, and knowledge gave way to ignorance…  I have understanding for one or two such errors in a manuscript of that length, but none whatsoever for several per page; that simply smacks of laziness and poor-to-no editing, and it boils down to an unintentional slap in the face to any reader who’s taken the time to read their story.

Knowledge without imagination is like a rusted hinge; imagination is the oil that makes the knowledge come to life, and the writer is the door handle that opens the door to new worlds, new ideas, new discoveries, and inventions. It sounds noble, doesn’t it?  But did you realize that many of the electronic gadgets we take for granted today were at one time birthed in the imaginations of men like Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek?  It inspired countless children who went on to become astronauts, scientists, and engineers, who made those science-fiction inventions become reality and discovered distant worlds (now known as exoplanets).  I’m waiting with bated breath for the transporter to replace airline security queues…

Those hinges are necessary, as is the oil, so that the door handle can do its job and get out of the way, allowing the world beyond to unfold.

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Buying Credit

No, the title is not referring to money or cash cards, but writing.  Stick with me.  If you’ve made yourself at home here and nosed through my cupboards, you’ll know that I do a LOT of research.  I love it.  It adds spice to my character’s meals, salty spray that blackens the redcoats of marines aboard a royal navy ship, tells me that heated arsenic smells like garlic, and makes the ship creak so loudly you’ll swear you’re going down to Davy Jones’ locker.  But there are times when, as an author, I’m required to blur the lines between fact and fiction.

There are certain things that people erroneously assume (such as Viking helmets) that I may need to adapt in order not to lose a reader’s trust (though trust me, I will never add horns!):  The sentence structures of bygone days were far more complex, with vestiges of Germanic linguistic influences – for my current manuscript (set in 18th century England and mostly aboard a Royal Navy ship of the line) I need to modernize the syntax without losing the High English flavour, and without compromising on the linguistic purity of my story’s time-setting; modern sensibilities (in social ladders, issues such as slavery, war, etc.); laxer standards (in, say, relationships or politics or social ranks), and so on.  A modern reader will most likely not appreciate the complex social mores of a time when men and women were never alone in a room – even when the man wanted to propose to the woman, and the parents wanted it to take place; and so, such things need to be adapted at times, to a certain extent, to reach a modern audience without alienating the audience that revels in bygone literature.

If I, as an author, want my reader (who is perhaps a stickler for all things historical) to give me the permission to bend a few social rules of the 18th century, I must first buy credit with them – prove to them that I’ve done my homework – so that they won’t get ripped out of the story in disbelief when I contrive to leave a man and a woman alone in the same room without a chaperone.  In my current manuscript, the husband and wife come from opposite ends of the social ladder, and the husband becomes a captain in the royal navy at the tender age of 20 or 21.  Both of these situations have many historical precedents; I know that from countless hours of research.  But most people who read historical novels might think, “But Viking helmets always have horns” – or something to that effect.  If written well, these disparities in understanding can be smoothed over, so that when I really DO break historical moulds, I am allowed to do so without offending the reader “in the know”.

1761-joshua-reynolds-lady-elizabeth-keppel

1761, Lady Elizabeth Keppel, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

This portrait illustrates an important point:  Many people, when thinking of the British rule of India, perceive it through postmodern lenses; we see it from the hindsight of Gandhi and the independence of the country from the imperialistic rule of British paramountcy.  But the other aspects were the children and wives of British soldiers, diplomats, and tradesmen, and the loneliness faced, the friendships struck with Indian men and women… these are important aspects to weave into a story, too, and thus require research.  Notice the pearls adorning the Indian woman below?  The researcher in me wants to know her story far more than the story of Lady Keppel (who died of a broken heart at the age of 29, just months after her husband had died of injuries from a riding accident).  Some readers may get jolted out of the world you create by the pearls, though it is historically accurate – so you’d still need to buy credit by setting up that aspect well.

These same credit-buying rules apply to any genre, even science fiction:  If you create a world set on another planet, that world will have laws – physics laws, indigenous social mores, etc. – and you as a writer must know what they are, and if or how they can be broken if need be.  You can’t claim that all liquid on the planet is frozen, and then have your character drinking from a fountain or stream, unless you explain how that’s possible.  If you do, you’ve taxed your believability credits and pulled the reader out of the world they’ve agreed to follow you into.  The manuscript that I’ll work on next (after the current one is published!) is science fiction; the air of the planet is toxic to humans, so I need to create a way for facial expressions, dialogue, etc. to come through even when the characters are outside in their suits.  I have done a lot of preliminary research into geology (that told me about heated arsenic, among other things); I also need to explain how a planet with multiple suns can have a stable enough orbit not to be drawn into one of the stars and burn up – i.e. I need to follow known physics laws, or explain how they are suspended for my planet.  I think you get the idea!

So if, as a writer, you want readers to believe what you write about a fictional character set in British India, you first need to buy credit with your readers by doing your historical homework and sculpting the landscape and characters in the rich tapestry they deserve.  If you are writing science fiction, establish your world and stick to your rules so that, if you need to bend them for a plot development, the readers will be willing to follow you on the adventure.  Whatever you do, keep writing!

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Rules of Writing: Elmore Leonard

elmore-leonard-authorElmore Leonard, best known for countless novels and their film adaptations, such as Get Shorty, Jackie Brown and Out of Sight, was known for this gritty writing style and strong dialogues.

Here are a few of his gems of advice for writers (with my comments in parentheses):

  • “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
  • “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” (Think: thick paragraphs of prose; boring lists; role calls that seem to be there more to remind the writer who’s in the scene than to entertain the reader.)
  • “If proper (grammar) usage gets in the way, it may have to go.  I can’t allow what we learned  in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.” (This advice should follow the adage, however:  First learn the rules; then you’ll know how and when you can break them.)
  • “Never open a book with weather.  There are exceptions.  If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe snow and ice  than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.”
  • “I never see my bad guys as simply bad.  They want pretty much what you and I want:  They want to be happy.”
  • “At the time I begin writing a novel, the last thing I want to do is follow a plot outline.  To know too much at the start takes the pleasure out of discovering what the book is about.”
  • “It doesn’t have to make sense, it just has to sound like it does.”

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On Perceptions and Perspectives

I saw this image a few weeks ago on Pinterest, and found it fascinatingly creepy.  It’s a great example of perspective, thwarting assumptions, and the fact that the image automatically raises certain expectations – until you see the caption.  What our minds initially perceive may or may not be accurate; only when we see the bigger picture, or have more pieces to the puzzle, does that perception or perspective change, or get adjusted to a more accurate overall understanding.  Doing this with words is an art form:  It’s about building expectations and thwarting them without making the reader feel like you’ve drawn them in under false pretences.  If they can look back through what they’ve already read and realize that only their assumptions were wrong – that the writer never misled them, but they misled themselves – then you’ve managed to find that fine line!

 

kitchen-sink

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Novels Worth Reading

As a novel writer, I’m first and foremost a reader; I love to read, I love to buy books, smell them, feel them, upload them… any form is fine by me.  I want the books I read to be witty, intelligent, and well developed in terms of plots, characters and environments.

Kitchen Sink Realism

Everyone has different tastes – that’s why there are so many different genres; but for me personally, there’s also a list of things I don’t want in a novel:  I don’t want to be confronted with messy lives dealing with self-inflicted problem after problem; I don’t want tragic or sad or bitter endings; I don’t want to be confronted with the grit, grime, blood and gore of dysfunctional lives that end up learning nothing, making no character arcs, and end up in the mud by the end of the tale.   This genre description actually has a name:  Kitchen Sink Realism.  It was a cultural movement in Britain back in the ‘50s and ‘60s that was portrayed in films, books, plays, and art – the grit, grime, anger, disillusionment and harsh realities of realistic social scenarios.  It’s what might also be referred to as postmodernism.  My personal response to this kind of novel is, “If I wanted that kind of realistic tension, I could just go hang out at the nearest bar.”

A Tough Nut

I once had an English student, and our focus was medical English in preparation for their upcoming medical exams (two nurses came together for semi-private tutoring).  As part of the lesson we needed to work on basic conversational skills and sentence structures, and I find that the best way to bring in a wide variety of scenarios is usually to do a type of role play – nothing embarrassing, but each person is given a character to put themselves into a situation that they might not normally deal with:  They may be a chef, or a secretary, or a customer in a hardware store.  This particular student, when asked what kinds of books she read, said, “history and autobiographies or biographies”.  When asked what novels she read, she said she found such things ridiculous and a complete waste of time (this was back before I became an author!); she categorically refused to even try to put herself into someone else’s shoes for the scenarios.  My impression of her as a person was that she was narrow-minded, knew it, and was proud of that fact.  She was a hard character, and all the time I knew her or met her afterwards, I never saw a soft side emerge, either toward herself or toward others; I often found myself wondering why she’d gotten into the nursing profession in the first place – as a patient, I wouldn’t necessarily want her working on my ward…  A line from the novel I’m currently writing (Asunder, the third book in the Northing Trilogy) would have fit her life too:  “he has never had the propensity for engendering compassion; I pray he never needs it, as he never gives it.”  An epic love story might do her a world of good.

What’s Worth Reading

What I want when I read a book is to be transported into another life, whether that’s in the past, present or future, on this earth, or on another planet, or in another dimension; I want to be entertained, made thoughtful, learn something about the world around me, and learn something about myself.  Ideally, I will come away from the experience having been changed, in even a small way.  I want to feel connected; somewhere out there is a person I can relate to – whether it be the author, or the character, or other readers that appreciate the same books.

Aside from places and times that are genre-specific, such as science fiction and alien planets in the future, or London in the 18th century, all of the elements of what I like in novels are universal.  Humans the world over, in every century, want to feel connected; to feel that they can relate to something someone else is going through; even to have parts of their own life’s experiences explained through someone else’s perspectives in similar circumstances.  Above all else, at the heart of every good novel – regardless of the genre – is a story of love; that is the ultimate connection between characters.  It may be a child finding the love of a family after being shoved through the knocks of life too much for their age; it may be the hero or heroine finding love; it may be a widow or widower finding love again, or reuniting with true loves; it may be someone coming to the point in their life that they accept and love themselves just the way they are.

On to You!

When you read novels, what is it you’re looking for?  I would love to hear about it – please comment below, even if it’s just a few key words!

novel-colin-firth

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