Countdown to NaNoWriMo: 3 days

 

Why do we feel the need to pair off our lead characters?

I’m curious about something. When I talk to other people doing NaNoWriMo, or other writers in general, it always seems like that if they have more than one main character, there has to be a romantic relationship between them. This is more prevalent when the characters are of opposite genres, but I’m going to assume that’s because most of the writers I know and talk to are heterosexual. All part of that “write what you know” mantra.

But why does it have to be that way? I don’t think it’s something that’s always true to life. After all, I have several female friends and have a great time hanging out with them, trading stories about the things we’ve done and generally gossiping. That doesn’t mean I have an interest in any of them in a romantic fashion. Sometimes it’s really nice to be just friends.

Perhaps it’s just the still slightly bitter divorced guy in me speaking, but that dynamic seems largely absent from a lot of fiction. It seems like, especially on television, if a male and female character are friends, things start to revolve around a certain “will they or won’t they” tension. Or their orientations are conveniently incompatible. From the media it seems like every women’s best friend is a slightly sassy gay guy with excellent taste in shoes. (Or maybe I just consume trashy media)

For example, for much of the X-Files, Mulder and Scully are shown as colleagues who respect each other and gradually become friends despite his inclination towards the spooky and her scientific skepticism. Despite this clearly established professional relationship, a lot of reaction towards the show was about if and when the two of them would kiss and progress to a distinctly less professional relationship. What was wrong with having the two of them not be into each other in that way?

It’s a little worrying that the only literary example of friends remaining “just friends” that I can think of crops up in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (a title that Blackadder III ruined for me due to punnery.) Elinor and Colonel Brandon work well as friends, even if the other characters in the novel seem to want them to end up as more. I hope somebody can give me some examples from a book that is less than two hundred years old.

I understand that a love story is a great font for drama (and in the case of NaNoWriMo, word count) and that it might allow for more varied situations, but do we always have to sacrifice a well written friendship to get to that? After all, if a relationship with a good friend goes wrong (which happens quite a bit in fiction and reality) you lose a friend that you can dish out the details to, or who can act as a shoulder to cry on.

Basically, I’m arguing that Billy Crystal’s “Harry” in When Harry Met Sally is wrong when he says:

“No man can be friends with a woman that he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her.”

It’s just that the way that most media portrays relationships, he’s unfairly proven right.

 

Nano Spotlight: Lost Limey

I got a little profile done by Chris at the Kelworth Files as NaNoWriMo approaches

The Kelworth Files

We’re only a few days from the start of Nanowrimo! I had a blast at the Hamilton regional Kick-off party yesterday, we may have had a record turnout, about 30 writers and half a dozen ‘Novel Adjacent People’ in the basement party room of Kelsey’s, and I had Hipster PDAs ready for all the writers, which included advice from these spotlight interviews! So today, let’s see what advice, and other things, Lost Limey has to tell us:

Limey’s history with nano:
I first became aware of the NaNoWriMo phenomenon around 2007 or 2008, thought “that seems like an awesome idea,” and promptly forgot about it for the better part of four years. Finally, in 2011, inspired by Jeremy Clarkson ofTop Gear’s infamous catchphrase “How hard can it be?” I signed up. I surprised myself by getting the story completed and a little over 50,000 words written within the…

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Countdown to NaNoWriMo: 4 days

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Okay, I’m currently writing this blog entry with about twenty-seven minutes to go before I hit my self-imposed deadline (If I miss it, you’ll see a “belated posts” tag somewhere around here) and the well of ideas is drawing rather dry.

I thought I’d write about the things that bug me in a work, so by necessity, this is going to be rather less focused than my usual “Countdown to NaNoWriMo” blog entries. It may even get a bit ranty. No promises.

But here are some of my dislikes about works I’ve read:

A spellchecker is not a substitute for proof-reading! (I’m sure I’ve violated this myself here on the blog, but these are more ephemeral spur of the moment pieces, and I mentally hold blog entries to a lower standard than full written works.) Something that spell-checkers will not catch are homophones and near-homophones. The ones that seem the most notorious on the internet are “you’re/your” (Hint, if you’re going to call someone idiotic, getting this right rather than going with the classic dumbass line “you’re an idiot!” is the first step in proving that the target of said insult might deserve it.) and “lose/loose,” the latter of which infuriates me beyond all reasonable capacity. To loose something is to let it free, to lose something is not to win or tie. These aren’t difficult things to figure out, people!

Also, you’re character might be a scoundrel, a thief and a braggart, but they are not a “rouge” unless they are a form of sentient make-up, a Canadian Football thing that eludes me (I can do proper football aka soccer, and American Football, don’t confuse me with a third form) or French for “red.” The word you are grasping for is most likely “rogue.”

Let me loose (see!) another complaint. A thesaurus is not a blunt instrument. You don’t need to search for a synonym for every word, but if you do decide to reach for the thesaurus, make sure the synonym you select makes sense for the context you’re using it in. And please remember literally is not a synonym for figuratively. When it comes to synonym usage, I’m torn between two quotes to illustrate the pitfalls. Mark Twain’s “Use the right word, not its second cousin” is definitely pithier and from a more well respect source, but the alternative, Inigo Montoya’s “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means” is so much more fun to say. Basically, when in doubt, go Princess Bride.

The final thing that bugs me is one of the more common violations of “show, don’t tell” where I’m told a character is smart, or witty, or clever but never given any proof to back it up. As I’m currently busily re-watching every episode of Star Trek in all its incarnations (why, yes, I am a massive nerd. However could you tell?), I came across the episode of The Next Generation entitled “The Outrageous Okona.” While the episode is terrible for more reasons than just this (Joe Piscopo) , we are introduced to a guest star, the titular Okona, who does nothing particularly outrageous. Okona’s introduction in the show comes in the form of an info-dump from Counsellor Troi, thusly:

“His emotions suggest that he’s mischievous, irreverent and somewhat brazen. The word that seems to best describe him is rogue. “

Apart from being wince-inducing exposition, it’s inaccurate. Okona is none of these things in the episode, though everyone reacts to him as if he was so. The guy is bland, beige and wallpaper-like. (Though at least Deanna didn’t confuse us and call him a rouge)

That’s my rantings and bugbears out. What are your writerly pet peeves?

(Photo by J. Gabriel)

Countdown to NaNoWriMo: 5 Days

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For tonight’s blog entry, I’m returning to the concept of the Hero’s Journey. Specifically, I’m going to be talking a little bit about what Joseph Campbell referred to in The Hero With A Thousand Faces, as the “Belly of the Whale,” after the biblical story of Jonah. (Though in my bible, the book of Jonah never mentions a whale, the passage refers to the creature as a fish throughout, for example Jonah 1:17 “Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”)

Despite that overtly literal reference, what Campbell means by “Belly of the Whale” doesn’t necessarily mean a literal swallowing. Like much in mythology, it’s a metaphorical image. Typically, this represents the point in the hero’s journey where the hero has answered the call to adventure, and now must defeat the obstacles that represent the guardians of the threshold between the everyday world the hero has known and the world of the truly unknown where the adventure takes place.

Frequently, this is the moment that represents the greatest personal danger to the hero, as they have yet to mature enough to face the trials ahead that the guardians represent a gateway to. Indeed, Campbell compares being in the belly of the whale as akin to dying. Truly, this can be a character’s darkest hour.

Let’s look at a couple of examples. George Lucas famously used Campbell’s monomyth/hero’s journey as the template for the original Star Wars movie. So, at what point does our protagonist, Luke Skywalker enter the belly of the whale in that story? Well, that moment actually almost has a literalized image of crossing into the belly of a great beast when the Millennium Falcon (and Luke) are pulled inside the Death Star by the station’s tractor beam.

For a more literary, and perhaps less obvious example, take Edmond Dantes from The Count of Monte Cristo, the point in which he enters the belly of the whale is not, as you might think, when he is imprisoned, but four years into his imprisonment when he realizes he has no hope of release and falls to his darkest hour, replete with an attempt to kill himself. The threshold is less physical and more to do with Dantes well-being.

Conquering these moments (I guess the literal event in the Jonah story would be the whale vomiting, but I don’t think “puking whale” sounds good as a term for a putative and important story beat) often become the first truly heroic action of your protagonist, and will often be the highlight of the novel’s first act. It represents the first point in a movie where the triumphant, awe-inspiring music first appears on the soundtrack. In my opinion, the hero escaping the belly of the whale and crossing the threshold into the narrative world should be the moment when your reader punches the air and shouts “Yes!” (Not that I’ve done that and got some very odd looks in a public library or anything…)

So, do you have a formal point in your story where the protagonist is facing their darkest hour before crossing over into the true heart of the hero’s journey? Is the belly of the whale in your story as literal as the examples in Star Wars or the biblical story of Jonah? Perhaps a less obvious one, as is the case for Dantes?

 

(Photograph by Keran McKenzie)

Countdown to NaNoWriMo: 6(ish) days

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(Quick Note: Yes, this is yet another one of these blog entries that is running a little late. In my defense the eight-week-old gentleman in the photo above is magnificently distracting.)

Even the greatest of individual plots isn’t enough to sustain an entire novel length narrative entirely by itself. To avoid a flagging pace and the dreaded specter of “padding,” you need subplots, and they can be tricky things to deal with.

First, let’s look at some of the positive aspects of subplots in a novel:

  • They add depth to the story and characters (never a bad thing.)
  • If the subplot focuses more on secondary and tertiary characters, it helps those character seem more well-rounded and realistic, and thus less “flat” compared to your protagonists
  • As hinted at above, a sub plot adds to your word count, which is vital in the mad thirty day dash to fifty thousand that is NaNoWriMo.
  • It helps build tension as you can leave a cliffhanger or particularly suspenseful moment in your main plot at the end of a chapter and then start the next chapter with an unrelated subplot. Sometimes it’s almost as much fun to torture your readers almost as much as your characters

Of course subplots, like any story element, are not without their pitfalls. One of the most common is that instead of your story having one clearly defined main plot with subplots dovetailing, paralleling or otherwise mirroring it, you end up with subplots that grow to take over the story, or rise to prominence so that you have two or even three “A” plots, which can be satisfying, but can also end up being a somewhat disjointed read, as if it were multiple separate novels mashed up into one thing.

As one of the most common sub-plots is a romantic entanglement between characters, this is also an element that can strangle the life out of a story incredibly quickly. For proof of this, go up to a random nerd you know (and if you’re reading this blog, you know at least one nerd, I guarantee it) and utter this infamous quote from Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

“I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft and smooth.”

They winced, didn’t they? That’s because the utterly chemistry-free “romance” subplot between Anakin and Padme overwhelmed the story of the rise of a Galactic Empire and the genesis of Darth Vader that the Star Wars prequels should have been about.

Sometimes the subplot overwhelming the apparent main plot can be done effectively. For example, in Peter F. Hamilton’s The Reality Dysfunction, the main plot seems to be about smuggling and revenge against a backdrop of galactic politics, an almost Han Solo-esque story. Then, the dead start coming back to life and the true main plot of the novel and the trilogy it’s a part of starts.

Another temptation with subplots is the impulse to lard up your story with some many of them that it becomes a dense and impenetrable maze to everyone except the author (and even they’re not immune in some cases, I’m pretty sure Chris Carter himself  couldn’t explain the main plot of The X-Files by the end of the 6th or 7th season). This seems to be especially prevalent in the genre I’ve opted to write in for 2013’s NaNoWriMo, fantasy, which is why so many planned trilogies often end up with anywhere from four to seven books.

Countdown to NaNoWriMo: 7 days

As a writer, I talk to imaginary people all the time. Sometimes, they talk back, and those times tend to be when the words flow best. I’ve alluded to it a couple of times in this little “Countdown to NaNoWriMo” series already, but it’s often not me who decides what a given character is going to do in the stories I write. The characters frequently tell me. Or at least, the more I write about a character, the more they end up taking over the narrative and twisting it to their own ends.

I’ve spoken to other writers (especially the super friendly Richmond WriMos folks), and find that I’m not alone in having my characters wrest the story from my grasp. Sometimes that wresting can be surprising in the forms it takes. As an example, in my superhero story I was writing for my 2012 NaNo, I had a character, Andrew Bernstein who was a college professor at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas before his powers (telepathy) were awoken by a traumatic event. Originally, I had visualized him as the slightly older mentor figure in my core ensemble, there to provide much of the exposition. Eventually, once I’d found Andrew’s voice, I realized that he had to be the villain of the piece and that he had a lot more powers than he was letting on. He ended up becoming the linchpin figure in the conspiracy narrative I was trying to tell, especially when I realized that he could be the biblical Abel who had his first superpower awakened when Cain murdered him.

The idea was too outlandish to really fit what I had written so far, but I did sprinkle hints in there about the truth and left it somewhat ambiguous if the readers figured out the clues. Bernstein became much more of a semi-villainous protagonist and his deeper ties to the government than he was letting on really helped propel the story to 50,000 with the tension and suspicions among the group increasing, and maybe being justified.

Better writers than me have also had characters take over their stories unexpectedly. For example, in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, Samuel Vimes was created as a supporting character to Captain Carrot as a weary embodiment of the status quo. Pratchett clearly had more fun writing Vimes as he took over the main character role in “Guards! Guards!”  and has become the star of several subsequent City Watch books.

The same thing happens with other media too. In Happy Days, Arthur ‘Fonzie’ Fonzarelli was envisioned as an incidental supporting character to the two leads, Richie Cunningham and Potsie. Anyone who remembers the show, though, will remember that Fonzie was a de facto lead character not long into the show’s run.

Looking at my 2013 NaNo notes, I’ve seen it starting to happen already on a story I’ve not even written a word of. I have a priestly character very, very loosely based on Thomas Becket. Initially he was going to be part of a framing device for the story, but as I look at my notes for some of the more knotty scene transitions, I can see a way for the characters and plot to move on by using the priestly character, so his role is already expanding beyond the premise. If he ends up being too much fun to write dialogue for, he might take over half the novel, so I’m going to have to be careful.

Do you have any characters that have taken over your stories? Do you listen to them?