Friday, April 22, 2011

Character & Environment, in Honor of Earth Day

Myths and Legends abound with fears and stories of natural disasters. Humans have this ability to shove the natural world away, and forget it's out there. if it's too rainy, or too windy, or too hot, or too--whatever, we complain. As if the weather the world were constructed for our inconvenience.

But our constructs--like the fence in my yard--are alterations in a terrain that once belonged to the natural world. Our human constructions are...artificial...existing to validate our sense of self, society, world and so forth.

When creating fantastical societies, it's easy to create a terrain which your characters pass over. Sometimes weather is used to reflect emotion, plot tension, accent a scene with an appropriate ambiance. But the natural world can also be personified. Often gods in ancient myths are associated with natural features--mountains, lakes, the ocean.

In order to bring your environment and thus the setting of your world alive, imbue the environment with meaning in your characters' eyes. Populate it with myth that reflect an understanding of niche and ecosystem. Do not assume that because we dress up these concepts with scientific terms that people prior to industrialization lacked an understanding of them. They had their own way of interpreting the same information, and noting the relationships between animals, plants and natural features.

And in urban environments, have the natural world encroach. Wild turkeys wondered through my yard a few times this past winter. They came in from the river and based on Facebook statuses had been seen as far as midtown.

To think that our urban lives are untouched by wilderness is inaccurate. We just don't like to see it. And yet, seeing a particular bird overhead, perched in a tree outside a window, or a nuisance in the yard can place your city geographically, reflect your characters' biases, and provide details that make setting pop.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

5 Reasons to Use Short Story Writing when Prewriting

Lately I've been focused on a self-imposed short story writing frenzy. So here are some of my thoughts on why short story writing is helpful.

1) World Building

In Fantasy writing especially, but also in any piece of fiction, the rules of “the world” dictate much about your characters’ actions. For fantasy, this can mean writing short stories that revolve around mytho-historic characters who may never appear in your Big Project. But knowing what forces turned a person into a myth, and more, can tell you a lot about the world in which your characters live. The more gray, the more complex your world, the more your characters will grow to reflect the society that shaped them. This makes the whole of your Big Project that more real and believable.

For literary fiction, world building takes on a different meaning. Each character has a different set of expectations of the world around d them. Go into the heads of minor charcter’s in the Big Project’s timeline, or even in the past. Use short stories in this manner to construct the relationships between your subset (family, community/etc) and their larger society. The placement of individual into the context of family, sub-culture, regional identity and national identity can begin to grant an understanding of the social norms for your charcter and how these things might not mesh with the general moral and cultural code of the larger society. Thus, you begin to create the shape of the world your character lives in.

2) Character Building

Another method is going into your charcters’ past and exploring the years and people in your Main Character’s life before the start of the story. This technique lets you explore the points in Main Character’s life that lead to his/her greatest strengths and weaknesses. Know where you Main Character’s insecurities stem from and why. Sometimes, knowing g the root of the character flaws will present you with the answer to how the Main Character can/should overcome the flaws over the course of the Big Project.

Also, these flaws can be cultural adaptive. Like a kid who’s life teaches him to distrust authority might survive longer in particular socio-cultural environments, but that same adaptive behavior might lead him to become a criminal when he’s an adult. Though he might not be a bad person despite it all, just a product of circumstances that he needs to leave behind.

3) Plotting

Short Story plots are at a basic level quite simple. But mastery of the short story plot presents the gift of knowing how to write on multiple levels at the same time. Knowing how to craft a plot that hits more than one level is the key to misdirection in the Big Project. Misdirection is what allows you to surprise Reader with plot twists. Subtlety requires not only careful wording, but good plotting as well.

Don’t be fooled by the basic short story arc. While that may have been hammered into you in academic settings, the structure of a short story is perhaps hardest to write because of its simplicity. Learning how to pare down to the basics but avoid predictability, demands practice and skill. Writing many short stories, and completing them all, will help you know how to do this well.

4) Word, Sentence & Paragraph: Choice and Order

Short stories must be succinct. It is the nature of the beast. Words cannot be used to fluff the story. Sentence order and paragraph order build the rhythm of your story, and are signs of character, world, and plot. When writing a short story all of your structural crutches are condensed and become as noticeable as a glow stick at night, in a ghost town.

So you can see them better in a short story, which means that you can deal with them more directly. And while they might blend into you Big Project—the glow stick at the rave—it doesn’t mean you should keep it (the color might be horrendous, no matter the context). The process of purging your structural crutches allows you to develop a deeper understanding of story-structure. You begin to take note of the differences between how you think your story *should* be received, and how it really *is* received. Oftentimes this boils down to learning the interplay of word choice, senatnce structure and paragraph arrangement.

Together, well crafted with a plot and a gently portrayed character, you have an outstanding short story.

5) Description

You can’t wax poetic in a short story. This goes a bit with #4, but description is often treated as a different category. Some rough drafts I’ve read seem to indicate that their authors think it’s ok to approach a short story in one of the following manners:

• “Ok, I need to paint a picture first.”

• “Oo, you haven’t forgotten where we were? Right? Let me add a sentence of pure description *here* to be certain.”

• “The character, wait! You don’t have an image? Let’s take a break so I can tell you how he/she looks.”

They don’t work. Not one of them. Not because Reader is opposed to seeing anything you want to paint, but because all of these approaches lead to frivolous words. The author that needs to take time out of the story to describe a setting or character is prone to providing panoramas to their viewers. The eye takes in more than it can process, yes? So when we create a panorama and then squeeze into a tiny corner, we are not presenting the story in a manner Reader would experience it if Reader were really inside the story. Rather, we are presenting a short story like a movie. The advantage that a story has over a movie is the ability to put the reader into the action; feel what the characters feel, see what the characters see. Reader does not need to see *more* than what Main Character sees, especially not in a short story. But in real life we don’t catch every detail when posed with a panorama, so why should Reader in a short story?
Description woven into story, character, plot, etc—is a word here and there. It is carefully crafted to create an image in Reader’s mind without taking away from the movement of the story. What we see is within the3 context of our perception of importance. So too is it for the Main Character. If the Main Character is properly leading the story, Reader should have a similar experience.
This is one of those *crutches* that a Big Project swallows. Short stories, on the other hand, make purple prose insanely noticeable. We’re an increasingly visual society, so this crutch is likely only going to become more prevalent. But Readers also seek more “meat’ than ever, better story and characters. So the skilled author presents both simultaneously (we are also a society of multi-taskers).

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

In a World where the Print Industry Falters

--A friend dressing up for last year's Horror Movie Night, put on by SWS.

Barnes & Noble. Borders. Now, there are big names migrating to self-publishing...what is this world we have wandered into? Questions of how much quality writing will exist in the future abound. Pessimistic comments float through web, with only some positive statements to punctuate the fear and voice an alternative answer.

We're all trying to find our way, wondering what the reordering of the industry will mean for our careers. Especially for those of us teetering on the verge of sending out a finished novel -- we can't be certain what the rules will be in the next two to three years. We can't expect the knowledge we've gained over the past decade to apply anymore.

It feels an awful lot like reaching into a full bathtub for a bar of soap. Every time I structure a plan, an understanding, some big news hits, and--Bam! It's like soap slipping through my fingers...

So I am putting together SWS. I've mentioned it a lot, but it's eaten up a great deal of my time. We will be offering classes locally, and hopefully--when we have the funds--in virtual space.

The classes will not only teach writing. They will also present editing, web-research and multimedia skills. I have been shocked how many know so little about basic programs. Further, schools are not offering training in the cloud--what's out there and how do you use it?

The Internet offers so much information for writers to sort through that often, finding what you really want--and knowing that you have found it--takes more critical research than (appears through my experience) to be generally assumed. I have helped numerous students at community college to send emails, save to usb and other simple internet tasks. I have sat with young writers who dismantle the significance of technology in their lives, and glorify computer illiteracy as if an era prior to the Information Age was a Golden Period to be emulated.

I honestly feel that that tract is futile. Intentionally preventing yourself from learning technology because you want to hold onto nostalgia that belonged to a generation before your own, seems disadvantageous to social adaptation.

Yet, this reaction to technology is due to the perceived reduction of social interaction. Rather than integrating technology into daily life in a way that fosters connections, there is resistance to learning how to use the computer to interact. but writing itself is communication, interaction. And for writers to adapt, they must find a way to integrate technology not only into their career, but into those interactions that foster career.

I know, perhaps you are thinking blogging.

But I am thinking of why I am building a non-profit. A setting with specialized instruction and exploration of writing-related knowledge to fuse the real life and the virtual. An organization that offers real-life connections and classes in technology, writing, etc.

Are there others institutions that provide this? Not in my city. Academic discourse only goes so far.

The picture above is from a somewhat successful fundraiser we held last year, a friend and colleague of mine. The participants elected to dress up for the horror movie night, and made a fun experience out of a small fundraiser. To keep afloat, our organization must do many more of these events. But you could say that the fascination with bygone eras and the romanticizing of medieval dress go hand in hand.

Though I am guilty of enjoying costumes myself, and so perhaps that makes me hypocritical.

Friday, April 1, 2011

(Re)Building Lara with Polyvore

I'm going to try this one out for a week! We'll see how well I like it :D

Meanwhile, I have been distracted by Lookbook and Polyvore...

It can be fun to create characters' outfits on Polyvore. Mind, all the branding makes these items far more expensive than my High School student characters in Wished Awry would actually wear...but the style is very Lara.

How does this help build a character?

I am not the best at description. I barrel into fight scenes, I draw conversations on longer than they need to be--and have discovered that I use these devices as a crutch.

So now that i am sitting on a complete rough draft of this Urban (Ya?) Fantasy, I am back tracking. I am fleshing out the characters (again) because now that the draft is complete, they've had their say--and changed my plans. So back to the drawing board! Then to make certain the puzzle pieces fit :)

Oh, and btw--I think I'll try a few new templates, so feel free to comment and leave your votes!