Friday, April 27, 2012

Tackling title trouble

I always have a title in mind, whether it’s a short story of 1000 words or a novel of 50,000 words when I start writing. Without a title in place I just cannot write. It’s like the titles open the flood gates of my mind and unleash my creativity.  With a title in place I have a clearer image of both the story and the characters. So far I have been lucky as none of my titles have been changed by either the editors or the publishers.

For my current WIP, about half-blood angels and devils, I do not have a title, not even a working title. I find this pretty restricting. I think I am spending more time brainstorming a title than working on the story.

Last month while exercising, a lovely title popped into my mind ‘Forever More.’ I spent the entire day basking in the warm glow of peace and happiness that the title had filled me with. I even decided that my title will have the words followed by ellipsis: ‘Forever More….’

The next morning unable to believe my luck at coming up with what I considered an awesome title, I googled it. My heart broke into a million pieces. A book by that name already exists. I even checked on Amazon. There are two books by that name.

 Now I am back to square one, unable to think of a title. This title trouble is driving me crazy. I know that the need of the hour is to write the first draft and not worry about a title. In good time a decent title will appear at my mind’s doorstep.

Are you all like me where titles are concerned? Do you all need to have a title in place before the words start spilling on to the  computer screen? Or can you all write an entire story without having any clue regarding its title? Does anyone have any suggestions for me where my title trauma/trouble is concerned? Any advice is welcome and appreciated.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why do we like imperfect characters?

In stories Imperfection is actually the new perfection. The smudge of imperfection in characters adds an unexplainable and undefinable appeal to the characters. Most popular characters are loaded with imperfection. I personally feel that’s where their attraction lies.

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 reflects these traits. Actually this quality (imperfection) lends reality to a character. Readers find it easy to identify with someone who is imperfect, who makes mistakes and  is swayed by emotions and prone to mood swings; they feel a sense of similarity when they encounter such characters.

Characters who remain calm and unruffled and who never makes mistakes have a falseness attached to them. Though we look upto perfect people, they 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, the girl suffering from kleptomania. 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 readers minds, these give the character individuality, but other than that 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? Do you consciously give your characters imperfect traits?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

How important are plot layers to stories?

I am reading Literary Agent Donald Maass’ Writing the BREAKOUT NOVEL workbook. I had ordered it on Flipkart (the Indian version of Amazon) in October, it was delivered at my doorstep within 5 days, I have started going through it just few days back.

Initially, I was very hesitant to read the book as I was scared that it would make me suspicious of my own MS. I am half way through the book and let me tell you that it is a wonderful tool that helps us write better.

One thing that I was delighted to read was about adding plot layers to a story. I had heard a lot about this tool: plot layers to enhance a story.  Many people may mistake a subplot and a layer. Maass has explained subplot as plot lines given to different characters while layers are plot lines given to the same character.

Maass talks about a plot being layered when more than one thing is happening simultaneously to the hero/heroine. He has a murder to solve, and at the same time his father is dying of cancer. Why not add a further layer? He is searching for the soul of Mozart’s piano concerti. What is it that gives them their power, their drive? He has to know, so along the way he achieves that insight, too. Thus, there are levels of problems to utilize: public problems, personal problems and secondary problems. Small mysteries, nagging questions, dangling threads- those also can be woven into the plot.

The argument behind adding more plot layers is that it reflects the multitiered complexity that most people feel is the condition of life today. 

I think my MS has maximum 3 plot layers, that too by accident. My protagonist has a main problem and two small complications. That’s it. What about all your protagonists. Do they have plenty of problems to wade through in the course of your stories? How many plot layers have you added to your stories? Do you agree with the view that the more plot layers the richer a story becomes? What is your opinion about it?

As I will be busy with some personal work, my next post will be on Tuesday  24th April. Till then, keep writing.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Several ways to create unusual plot lines

Someone told me that there are just five types of plots: a love story, the battle of good versus evil, a revenge saga, a quest and a journey into the unknown, and almost all the stories ever written fall heavily into one of these types. When we ponder the above statement, we can definitely agree. Almost every story we have read embraces one of these plot lines.

Some stories flirt with just a single plot line while others hug more than a few in a single story. The more plot types the better the reader interest.

I feel there are certain motifs or patterns that tend to recur in one form or another throughout world literature. Below, I have listed a number of the most identifiable ones.

The Battle with the Monster.
The Quest.
The Voyage and the Return Home.
The Hero hidden as the Monster.
The Divided Self.
The Engagement with the Dark Power
The Fatal Flaw.
The Journey from Rags to Riches.
The Voyage to the Underworld.
The Battle between Good and Evil.
A Love Story.
The Revenge Drama.
Adventure Stories.
Weakling turned into Superhero.
The Chase.
Entry into a New World.
Encounter with a Strange Creature.
One  Man Against Society.
One Apart

The hallmark of a good story teller is when  more than one of the plot types are incorporated into a single story in a seamless way. So far I don’t think I have consciously done that. I have always relied heavily on one kind of a plot. Many writers combine several types of plots and create a new plot or play upon a plot line by giving it a modern twist.

 Can you think of more plot patterns? What kind of a plot pattern does your book fall into? Do any stories with several plot lines come to your mind? How do you tackle your own plots? We would love to hear your views.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Writing from different Points of Views

So far most of the books and stories I have read and written have always been from the main character’s Point of View. The events unfold as the main character sees it. Everything that happens in the stories happen in connection to the main character. Most of the books and stories I have read have always embraced a single POV.

I have read just a few books with two POV’s. But in almost all these books we can consider both the characters as the main ones. A friend told me about  a book where both the main characters narrate alternate chapters. I read a review of a book online where the two main characters present the stories from their points of view: in each chapter they see  things differently. I thought that was a cool way of seeing things. I am yet to read books with more than two POV’s.

Rick Riordan’s series Kane Chronicles has the two main characters, the siblings Sadie and Carter each telling their version of the story. To avoid confusion underneath the chapter heading the author mentions the name of the character whose point of view is being presented. I enjoyed these books tremendously. I felt it was unusual and quirky as both the characters had their charm and individual way of story telling.

I must mention that I have just read one story where the main character was the antagonist. I found it very different from the usual stories I normally read.

Do you feel stories with points of views of different characters and not the main character can be successful? What do you feel about stories told from the POV of the antagonist? Do the antagonists  then become the protagonists in such stories and the protagonists the antagonists? Can such stories work? Which POV do you all prefer in your stories, both as a writer and reader?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Do you add detailed descriptions in your stories?

Descriptions are an important tool for us writers to create vivid images in a reader’s mind. Some writers tend to overdo on descriptions; either going into elaborate detail about people and objects, like describing even the mole above the left lip or the crescent moon under the eyes or the bristling hair in the hero’s moustache. Then there are few writers like me who tend to underdo on descriptions, by keeping descriptions to a bare minimum. I leave them to my readers’ imaginations.

In the WIP I am querying, I have created a fantasy world where there are objects, food and animals one would normally not find around us. My descriptions were brief. My crit partner Mark Noce pointed out that even if I were to use just a line or two of descriptions for both the people and objects it would make a huge difference to my story as it would bring things to life.

Seeing the book from Mark’s point of view, I realized that it was true. The hard and fast rule of less descriptions does not apply to all stories. Some stories thrive on details which bring the people, objects and things to life. I went through the entire manuscript and added small details (just a line or two) in places that I felt needed a little more detailed descriptions.

I have noticed that books that fall heavily into the literary genre rely a lot on descriptions. For thrillers there are speedy descriptions as though the hero/heroine is seeing things in a fast forward motion. For children’s books, the writer has to describe things in such a way as to interest the small reader.

One point everyone talks about is that the descriptions we use should be crucial to the story or take it forward. Descriptions that weigh the story down need to be deleted.

How do you all handle the descriptions in your stories? Are you the kind who thrive on detailed descriptions? Or do you believe that less is more? Do you keep a separate revising day just for working on descriptions? Please share your methods with us. We would love to get some advice that will help us when we tackle the descriptions in our stories.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

How do we shortlist our story idea?

   At any point in a writer’s life, there are several story ideas jostling for place in a writer’s mind. Thank God for the fact that our minds are seldom devoid of story ideas. The muse may be elusive, but the ideas are plenty. I know I am contradicting myself when I make that statement. When I talk about the muse, I am specifically talking of ideas for individual scenes and not general story ideas.

At this point I have three ideas for books fighting it out in my small brain. I am very confused about which one to work on. All three sound wonderful (as do most ideas I have). I started working on one, then another idea accosted me and finally a third shiny idea set up residence inside my tiny mind.

I thought I would do something smart. I started outlining two of the ideas and will work on the third in a few days. There is going to be a basic outline keeping the LOCK (Lead , Obstacle, Confrontation and Knockout in mind) and then there will be a more detailed outline, just so that the story idea does not fade from my mind.

The notebooks I have jotted down the ideas in will be preserved for the future, much like what children’s author Raold Dahl used to do. He would jot down every idea that popped up inside his head and work on it years later. He actually worked on one of the ideas he had jotted down 10 years after the idea first visited him.

I would like to know how you all tackle this problem? What do you all do when several ideas are fighting for your limited time and each idea is demanding your sole attention? How do you all decide which idea is the best to work on? I would love to hear everyone’s opinions as it will help me in tackling the excess ideas menace (I am not grumbling about it, there is a huge smile on my face).