Friday, October 28, 2011

The Lure of Imperfect Characters

I am not sure about other writers, but personally I love Imperfect characters; both while reading and while writing. Most of the characters I create have some or the other imperfection in them. Imperfection is actually the new perfection. The smudge of Imperfection in characters adds an unexplainable and undefinable appeal.

Characters in books mirror real life people. We all have our own individual idiosyncrasies, flaws, shortcomings and insecurities. So it’s nothing unusual if characters reflect these traits. Actually this quality (Imperfection) makes a character more real. Readers find it easy to identify with someone who is imperfect. Someone who makes mistakes, is swayed by emotions, is prone to mood swings is more real than a character who is calm and unruffled and who never makes mistakes. Though we look up to perfect people, they do give us a temporary sense of insecurity.  We feel small in front of them. We may even secretly and subtly resent their perfection and larger than life image. But it’s the imperfect characters we bond with. In their presence we revel in our own imperfections. 
 Have you all noticed that more and more often our protagonists lead imperfect lives. As the story unfolds, these imperfect characters leading imperfect lives try to resolve the conflict by tackling their own personal imperfections first. 
Aristotle called it Hamartia, which was seen as a character flaw. This character flaw can be a limitation, a problem, a phobia, or a deficiency present in a character who is otherwise quite normal. The character flaw may be a violent temper that may turn out to affect the character’s actions, abilities, or interactions with other characters. Sometimes it can be a simple personality defect which only has effect on the character’s motives and social interaction and nothing else. 
Flaws or imperfection add depth and humanity to the characters in a narrative. For eg the mayor with a penchant for gambling, the hero with claustrophobia, the heroine with an alcohol problem. One of the most famous example is ‘ Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.’ 
Character flaws can be slotted into three categories.
 Minor Flaws make the characters memorable in reader’s mind, these give the character individuality, but other than that they do not affect the story in any way. They can be a scar, an accent, biting the lower lip, twirling the moustache, a girl constantly flinging her hair back. A protagonist can have several minor flaws, each having no effect on the plot.
Major Flaws are noticeable and important. They affect the individual physically, mentally, emotionally, morally or spiritually. Major flaws are not necessarily negative : they can be rigid religious beliefs or a strict adherence to a certain lifestyle. Major flaws like: greed, blindness, deafness, lust, often hamper and restrict the character in one way or the other. The major flaw is important for the character’s personal development and the story. Heroes and heroines must overcome their own major flaws either partially or completely, either temporarily or permanently, at some point in the story, very often by the climax, by sheer determination or skill to be able to solve the larger problem at hand. For a villain his major flaw is frequently the cause of his downfall. The protagonist’s major flaw defines the core problem, the entire journey to remedy this problem forms the firm backbone of the story, sometimes prodding the plot forward.
The last flaw is the Tragic Flaw, it’s the cause of the character’s downfall and eventual death. Tragic Flaw arises out of the character’s misplaced trust in another character, an excessive amount of curiousity that sucks him into problems, pride that plunges him into a world of loneliness. The fall that often arises out of the Tragic Flaw occurs at the beginning of a story.
Do you like perfect characters? Or Imperfection is the new perfection for you? What kind of character flaws do your characters have? 

Friday, October 21, 2011

Avoiding the Dreaded Cliches

At one time I could have been accused of adopting clichés as my new friends. That was way back in school. Though it took time I outgrew that friendship. Cliches are an editor’s nightmare. They are also a creative writing teacher’s nightmare. Actually, they are everyone’s nightmare. I have nothing personal against clichés, but I really, really hate them. Whenever I come across the common cliches my hands itch to scratch them out.

After reading a few of my students assignments stuffed with clichés of all kinds from plots and characters to the actual writing: her blood was the colour of tomato sauce/ketchup (I seriously stopped eating ketchup), her dress was as green as grass (does anyone still say that?), he was as cool as a cucumber; I decided to devote an entire session to avoiding clichés.  

Granted that few of these students were just out of school, but that’s no excuse to fall heavily into cliché territory.

 I always feel there are better ways of saying things. Instead of saying “the colour of her dress was as green as grass,” we can always say “ her dress was  the colour of freshly watered grass.” This description instantly creates an image of swaying grass with drops of water clinging to it.

Another cliché that really irks me  is “her eyes were blue as the sky,” we can say this in a different way “her eyes were the colour of a summer sky.” There is an instant visual of an endless blue sky devoid of clouds.

A cliché I detest is “ her hair was as black as the night.” There is always a better description, we just have to exercise our creative cells.  Isn’t the description “ her hair was dark as sin, her hair was the color of melted dark chocolate, her hair was the color of a cold winter’s night,” way better.   

 “Far from the madding crowd,” is a cliché I have come across several times. Isn’t  “far from the dust and pollution of the city,” or “ far from city noises,” a slightly better way of describing  the same thing?

Another student of mine had decided to cram as many clichés as possible in her essay. I just hope that she was not testing my patience. Her first cliché “he was as hairy as a bear,” I converted into “a bee could get lost in his body hair”.  Highlighting all the clichés with red, I asked her to write them in a better way. By the end of the session, she had learnt to avoid clichés.

Cliches should be given a royal burial. There is no place for them in a good piece of writing. Cliches are responsible for pieces of writing that come under the heading of  ‘Bad Writing.’

As writers we are supposed to see the unusual in the usual stuff, to see a thing differently is our forte. And to describe it in an unusual way is what we specialize in. Our descriptions conjure vivid images in our readers’ minds. They literally transport them to  other and different worlds.  It’s our moral duty towards our readers to give them different descriptions.

 Is there any cliché you particularly detest? Is there another and better way of describing it? We all would love to read about the clichés you abhor.

PS.  I am taking a small break, as Wednesday 26th October is Diwali (the most important Indian Festival). There won't be a Tuesday post. My next post will be on Friday 28th October. Here is wishing all my writing friends a very Happy Diwali.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Guest Interview with Author Patrick Johnson

Patrick Johnson, pen name SB Jones, is the self published author of The Eternal Gateway series.  He comes from a strong technical background after working for Dell Inc. for eight years and a regular attendee of the DefCon hacker convention. 

 Tell us a little about the Eternal Gateway Trilogy.

 The Eternal Gateway Trilogy centers on a once hidden artifact in the jungle that allows certain worthy people to see and travel to the past or future.  I use a mix of light steampunk: airships, gunpowder tech, trains and mega cities.  Traditional high fantasy: magic, swords and sorcery.  And science fiction: time travel, and physics.  The first novel, Requiem, is a classic hero’s journey of the main character going from the ordinary to the extraordinary.  Guardian takes place five years after the events of Requiem and is a much darker, emotionally charged novel that the characters have to deal with the harsh realities of war.  The fun adventure is over, it’s real now.  The final book, Sentinel, is where everything comes together.  The time travel elements will have you reaching for books one and two again.  Redemption and revenge are the main themes as everything comes full circle.

Where does inspiration for your characters and stories come from?

Most of the characters come from decades ago pen and paper roll playing games created from grade school through high school.  Some started from video games, movies, or TV shows.  For example, Kail and Angela were characters from the pen and paper games, while the airship captain, Camden Arland, I tried to model after LOST’s Sawyer.  As I wrote Requiem, I just wasn’t able to make Camden into a grumpy guy that hated that he had to do the right thing.  My editor says he reminds her of Jack O’Neill from Stargate.

 Do you have any advice for aspiring authors trying to create a trilogy?

 Plan, plan, and plan some more.  As I learn and become more experienced with writing my views change a lot.  A big part of me wishes that I had not published Requiem until the whole trilogy had been written.  I am almost finished writing book two and there so many details that I could go plant seeds for in book one that have cropped up.  I know deep down the trilogy would be better for it if I had waited.  But at the same time, if I had not released Requiem, all of the feedback, comments, and people asking me when the next book comes out, seeing people smile and shaking hands at book signings would never have happened.  Without that, there is a very good chance it would never have been anything more than a rough draft and an outline.

Being a regular follower of your blog, I have realized that you are a serious plotter and outliner. Can you tell us about your plotting method?

 I like to start with note cards.  I put chapters or scenes on them and lay them out on my bar.  It’s nice because you can easily move them around until you get the events the way you want.  It helps eliminate plot holes or giant gaps in events.  Regardless of what you do, things happen that you did not plan for so it needs to be flexible enough that you can adjust and not have to go back or redo work.

Did you try the traditional publishing route or did you go straight into the self-publishing way?

 Honestly I intended to go the traditional route first.  I wrote 5 short children stories called Stan the Man.  My plan was to get Scholastic to pick them up and use that success and money to fund the time while I worked on The Eternal Gateway.  That never happened I just shook my head at the whole query, agent, wait two to ten years for an answer business.  Without an artist or publisher, Stan the Man was shelved.  When I was in the first rounds of edits for Requiem, I heard about Amanda Hocking.  It’s easy to guess where things went from there.

You have said that “One of the nicest thing about being self published, is the fact that your success is directly related to the effort you put in.” How are you going about marketing your book?

Marketing is a topic that will never end.  I think what most self published and even traditionally published authors fail to realize until they are in the middle of it is this.  Writing/story telling is an art.  Publishing is a business.  A lot of authors throw their work up expecting hundreds or thousands of people to buy their book.  When it doesn’t happen by next week, they blame Amazon for it.  A lot put in time and effort to blog, tweet, and Facebook all day, but still fail to sell.  When you look at these authors they are doing a good job marketing to their peers, not their customers.  Great, you have 500 followers, but they are all other authors.  Look up @day9tv on twitter.  71,000+ followers.  Those are all fans, not other internet tv hosts.  Blowing a $100 for a Google ad for a weekend isn’t going to work.  You are better off buying $100 worth of your own book and giving them away at the mall.  The majority of my success has been from getting myself out there.  Book signings, shaking hands, small talk to the person behind you at the checkout line.  And always, always have something on you to give people.  A business card with the cover and information to buy the book.  I have sold more paperbacks and eBooks this way than from blogging, tweeting, and posting on forums.  Don’t neglect these, because they will with time generate sales.  It can take years though for it to happen.

What have you learned about marketing your first book? How will it influence your marketing strategy for your next two books?

I wouldn’t call it a mistake, but I launched Requiem on Monday June 20.  The next day Bantam Books dropped like 140 back listed Star Wars books on Amazon.  When you checked to see what was new in science fiction my book was instantly shoved 10 pages deep.
Coordinating sales is something I am going to try with Guardian.  It doesn’t take many sales to push your Amazon ranking up the charts.  For example if 50 people buy your book spread out through a month, your ranking will be much lower than if you had those same 50 sales in a day or two.  So planning with friends, family, and generating presales and letting people know well in advance when it goes for sale is very important.  Hitting a top 100 subgenera on Amazon is very important for sales.
Last is picking a better launch date.  I have read several times that launching around holidays that have gifts are ideal over random days.  Christmas, Mothers Day, Fathers Day etc are better than mid July or late September.

 How do you manage writing, marketing, blogging, as well as publishing your books? Is there a secret time management skill you would like to share with my readers?

There is no secret.  People have heard this one before.  I treat it like a job.  Tuesdays are my online marketing days, I rarely get any writing done now on Tuesdays as I make the blog rounds, post comments, post a blog, hit the forums, find new blogs, tweet, Facebook and everything else.
The other weekdays, I write.  I get started around 10am, check emails, do a quick look through Google Reader to see what’s new in blogging.  If there are new blogs from certain people, like yours Rachna, I will read it and leave a comment if I can.  Once noon hits, I shut it all off, turn on some music and start writing.  Getting rid of distractions is very important.  It’s all to easy to check your Amazon ranking, email, wander to a forum, browse twitter and find that 3 hours have passed.
My advice for people who don’t have the luxury of being a full time writer is you have to make time.  Writing is a skill, it needs to be done over and over, like exercise. Even an hour a day if you can get in 500-1000 words, you can have a full length novel in 3-4 months.  Nothing will get the book done other than butt in chair.

 Do you have a favorite writing craft book?

I don’t.  I don’t have any books on how to write.  I use Google a lot to look things up when I get stuck or I ask my mother who is a retired school teacher.

Thanks Patrick for giving us a peek into your creative process.

Patrick’s blog
Twitter as @starbuck_jones.
Requiem can be found in paperback and eBook at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Ten Commandments of a Writer

I was so busy this week (tweaking my book) that I forgot to write my usual writing related post. I do have a few serious posts planned, but I had no time to write them down. So, I decided we can all have a little fun. I am sure we have earned it.

If there were ten commandments for a writer, what do you all think they would be? I have compiled a small list. According to me a writer’s ten commandments would be:
                 1. Thou shall not covet thy neighbour’s or another writer's character/story/book/agent.

                 2. Thou shall only worship one God: thy muse.Thou should love and respect it.

                 3. Thou shall consider one’s writing time holy and sacred and not spoil it with 
                     distractions that come in the form of Facebook, Twitter and Cell phones.

                  4. Thou shall honour one’s Characters and Plot.

                  5. Thou shall believe in Revisions, Revisions and more Revisions.

                  6. Thou shall adopt atleast two Crit Partners before unleashing one’s book on   
                      the unsuspecting readers.

                  7. Thou shall avoid clichés and stereotypes.

                  8.  Thou shall love thy Manuscript and believe in it inspite of the rejections
                       piling up.

                  9.  Thou shall not try to kill thy readers with boredom. Thou shall come up with 
                       original plots and characters that will interest readers.

10.    Thou shall not curse agents or wish them evil in case of rejections.

  What are your writing/writer commandments? Any new commandment you would like to share with us? Is  there any commandment that you have ignored. I have been guilty of ignoring all the commandments at some time or the other. Please share your writing sins with us.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What has my writing taught me?

My journey as a writer has been quite long, starting with short stories and features for several years before I took a full fledged plunge into the world of  books. Over the years I have learnt several things in this journey and not just how to create better plots and characters, but also about life.  I want to share these insights with my writing friends.  I am sure few things will make you smile, and some things will make you nod your heads.

  1. Writing has taught me patience. Patience is not one of my better known virtues. The time it takes to write a book from the day the idea pops into my overactive mind, until the day I see the book/ story in its published form is long. At every moment, impatient little me needs loads of patience to be able to do justice to the work I have undertaken. 

  1. Writing has taught me to respect people with split personalities as my personality undergoes a drastic change at different stages of my writing. When I am writing the first draft, I am quite stressed and irritable with the smallest disturbances. When I rewrite I am pretty upset with myself, and when I edit I am relaxed and cheerful.
  1. Writing has made me value other writer’s efforts. I never dismiss a book as crap or run it down, as I am aware of the effort someone else must have invested in that endeavour. The book may have bored me to tears, maybe disappointed me a little, or a lot, but it still required a tremendous effort from someone else to bring it to that stage.
  1. Writing has made me appreciate the little free time I get. For us writers, our work doesn’t end with just writing a publishable book, it starts with that. Once we have jumped onto the publishing bandwagon, we have to actively market our books. Its then we realize that the day could have done with few more hours, or, that we could have done with few less activities. 

  1. Writing has made me realize that If I were to wait for a visit from my muse, I would probable write just a book or two in my lifetime. It has made me realize that with or without the active participation of my muse I have to churn out those words that will fill my manuscript. If my muse sees me working hard, perhaps talking pity on me it will drop in for an extended visit. 

  1. Writing has been responsible for me developing a really thick skin. An editor/agent/reader/publisher/crit partner may not have reacted favourably where my work was concerned, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I am a bad writer, or, that I have to drown myself in self-pity. For every single person out there who doesn’t like my work, there is another person who will love it. Well, I personally have not liked all the books I have read, but that does not mean that the writer is bad, or, has failed. It just means that a particular story has not appealed to me emotionally.
  1. Writing has taught me more about spirituality than the holiest of books. We writers get familiar with every aspect of spirituality: from surrender to working without an eye out for the desired result, to calm acceptance of our book’s fate. Do we know the fate of our manuscripts when we send it on its publishing journey? No. Do we know whether a character we have worked on for years will be loved or dismissed by readers? I am sure not. Do we know the reactions of the readers to our books? Definitely not. Do we know whether we will ever be able to make a decent living from our writing profession? Certainly not. Each cheque is a pleasant surprise.

  1. Writing has made me an observer of life. Nowadays, I soak in everything; from the surrounding to people’s facial expressions to body language to how people speak and react. All this heavy duty observation is to bring authenticity to my writing.

  1. Writing has also made me appreciate the value of other writers in my life in the form of blog buddies/writing friends/crit partners and brainstorming buddies. I know how precious a writer’s time is, but every writer in this awesome blogging community has gone out of their way to help each other.   

  1. Writing has also taught me to appreciate my readers: both for the stories and features I write for the newspapers and my books. It’s the readers’ appreciation that keeps me going.

 What has your writing journey taught you? Please share with us, we all would love to know.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Craft of the Short Story

I am extremely fond of writing short stories. I have written around 60 and practically all of them have been published. I hope to write many  more. Short story was the starting point for my writing career. My editor told me something very sweet about a short story; it’s a novel waiting to grow up. Not always, I said. Many times a short story is just a short story, but, sometimes inside each short story lurks a novel, waiting to emerge.

My Blog Buddy Mark Noce asked me “My big question for you is how to write a short-story without it morphing into a novel. This often happens to me.

To answer Mark’s question, I would have to say that a short story is just a very thin slice of someone’s life, a beam of moonlight, a brief interlude. Its just one tiny incident that has happened in the main character’s life, while the novel is a series of incidents.

Unlike novels, short stories do not have the advantage of a long drawn courtship with the readers. There is no serenading the readers over several chapters. The attraction is Instant. Or, there is no attraction at all. It’s a Do or Die situation.    
One person stories are extremely powerful, and if its in  the first person narrative, then, all the more better. This kind of narrative creates a sense of deep intimacy, the reader gets a close peek into the protagonist’s soul and life.

One of the main features of a short story is that it has just 1 or 2 main characters, too many characters vying for space in a short story spoil the effect; its then like a party where no one has enjoyed the atmosphere. The movement of the characters is severely restricted. The writer is unable to do justice to any of the characters. A crowded characterization is acceptable if it’s a party, or a classroom scene, then, these extras lurk outside the fringes of the story, never interfering with either the protagonist, or, the  movement of the story. Surplus characters slow down the pace of the story.  

The best feature of the short story is its indifference to cramming details about the characters, situations and events. For a short story, it’s like one is packing for a brief holiday: only the basic necessities that we just can’t do without are added to the suitcase.  It’s different from a novel, where one is literally shifting house: bag and baggage.

The reins of the plot of the story are held tight, the writer is aware of each and every breath the story is taking. The breathing is even and measured: no long drawn sighs, or, gasping for breath. The journey of the short story is similar to a ride in which there is no halting, or, loitering around, or, even taking a little rest.  It’s more like a 100 metres dash. Start to finish.

Short stories with ironic and trick endings like ‘The  Necklace’ by Guy Du Maupassant  will seldom be forgotten. The psychological short story popularized by Anton Chekhov has become memorable. The settings in many of his stories is in the minds of his characters, the dialogues are a steady stream of internal monologues. A short  story that has  lingered in many minds  for a long time is ‘The Gift of the Magi’ by O’ Henry. This heart wrenching story is recollected every Christmas.

Short stories that work best have a Twist in the Tales. They certainly grab a reader’s attention. It requires an adept story teller to provide the end that takes the reader completely by surprise. This twist in the tale must stem from either the character, or, the story.

Short stories make the tendency to tie up every loose end redundant. This is its biggest plus point. Few things can be left unsaid, few questions unanswered. A short story is just one scene from the main character’s life; a scene complete with a MC, Conflict and a Resolution. Most short stories start with a conflict, which is then quickly resolved. In a short story you need to start at the climax; think of a person in a setting.

Life Unordinary asked me what is the ideal length of a short story. The ideal length is  400 words for Flash Fiction and 500 words to 800 words for a picture book, 1000 words is appropriate for children’s stories, 2500 to 3500 words is the word count for most competition entries for adult short stories and also for older children. Some writers have gone on to write short stories of 10,000 words.

PS: Just wanted to share with you all the good news that my short story ‘Ganesha’s Blanket of Stars’ won a Special Mention (Prize) in the Unisun Reliance Timeout Competition. Next year I have been asked to judge the competition. I am quite excited about it.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Writer’s Many Fears

Like characters, plots, scenes, story lines, different fears too reside inside a writer’s mind overflowing with ideas. Though these fears exist right from the time we put pen to paper (write that first word or type it), they raise their ugly heads when we start querying.

 Everytime there is a deathly silence from agent/agents we have queried these vicious monsters of fears raise their ugly heads. I feel these fears are obstacles created and thrown along our paths by forces unknown to us, to test our mettle, to firm our  weakening determination and belief and to strengthen our resolve to stick to the path chosen by us and make us have a firm faith in our stories.

These fears come in different forms:
  1. Fear of choosing the wrong subject. A subject that is hot now may not even receive a lukewarm response by the time we are thorough with the various drafts and rewrites and ultimately find a publishers/agent and the book finally gets published.
  1. Fear of not doing justice to the main character. A weak character is such a let down. 

  1. Fear of not doing a good job where plot, characters, story arcs, dialogues and settings are concerned. There will always be somebody left dissatisfied with our story/books. 

  1. Fear of not getting an agent. What if no agent likes our stories? 

  1. Fear of the book not finding any home (publishing house) even though the agent is on board. 

  1. Fear of the editor wanting major rewrites that we may not be happy about, or chopping  parts that we considered crucial or important. That is after the book has been placed with a publishing house. 

  1. Fear of being trashed by critics on whose words hang our writing careers. (If a critic is having a bad day, the result is a bad review) 

  1. Fear of readers disliking the book. ( That is  a major fear) 

  1. Fear of the first print run being unsold. (Another  fear that haunts) 

  1. Fear of not being given another chance to redeem ourselves. What if publishers and editors are scared to give us another chance? 

  1. Fear of  failure, of  being unable to rise up to our own expectations? 

 With so many fears surrounding us, it’s a wonder we are able to put pen to paper. Indeed it’s a brave soul that battles these fears to emerge with words that not only make sense, entertain, but also bring joy into someone’s life.

Which fear or shall I say fears do you face or have faced in your writing journey? At this point in time I am facing quite a few of these fears. How do you capture these fears to write day in and day out?  It will be of great help to each of us if you share your experiences and how you handle these fears and stop it from messing with your creativity.