Friday, March 29, 2013
So what about novels? If you want to be a novelist, do you have to read novels? No. But if you don't read them, then you should listen to them. I say this because I have a friend who is writing her first novel. She hates to read and avoids it as much as humanly possible. Her reason is that she is dyslexic. I have another friend who is dyslexic and she reads voraciously, but that doesn't matter. My friend who hates to read is passionate in her hatred and quite sensitive about being challenged to read. And I'm fine with that. She has a right to have pain in regards to the dyslexia and to feel that other people don't understand what she goes through when she tries to read. BUT she wants to be a novelist, and in order to do that, she needs to understand how novels are structured.
Sometimes people think that they can write a novel because they've watched a lot of movies based on novels. Movies and television shows can help writers in a number of ways. Probably the best thing a writer can learn from watching movies and television shows is how to write good dialogue and how to use that dialogue to do characterization and advance the plot. I highly recommend watching shows. Just watch them with a writer's ear. Pay attention to the things I just mentioned about dialogue plus notice how the plot is structured, how the conflict is established, intensified and resolved, and notice the things that drive you nuts--and make a mental note not to do that to your readers. I'm not a good person to watch a murder mystery with because I can usually figure out pretty quickly who done it. Generally I keep it to myself, but sometimes I say it and the people I'm watching the show with will say, "Oh no. It's this other character." When the person I mentioned turns out to be the culprit, my family will say, "How did you know that so soon?" And I say simply, "I'm a writer." Bottom line: I'm alert to writers tricks and in mysteries I notice who the writer DOESN'T want the audience to suspect, you know, that person who is so likable or sympathetic. He / she is usually the murderer.
But as much as movies and tv shows can teach a writer, they cannot teach writers how to write novels even when the show is based on a novel. There's so much that is left out. Description, for example. That's a novelist's art. Setting a scene is another thing that movies can't teach. These things are both done visually in movies and tv shows but must be done with words in a novel. Another thing that can't be learned from movies is how to structure a chapter. An aspiring novelist can only learn that from novels.
So what do you do if, like my friend, you want to write novels but you have difficult in reading them due to dyslexia, optical migraines or other issues? Listen to them. Just as libraries are a good resource for obtaining written versions of plays, they also have audio books. While there are still a few formatting things that a writer can't learn from audio books, listening to a book will help the aspiring novelist understand how novels are put together. So no excuses! If you really want to be a novelist, go explore and study novels. It doesn't matter if you read them or listen to them, but you must get to know them. Intimately.
Saturday, February 2, 2013
Whether or not a writer should do prewriting before drafting is a question that can be debated. I'm not going to debate it here. At least not today. But if a writer decides to prewrite (or is forced to by mean English teachers like me), then the writer will benefit from knowing what kind of prewriting works best for his or her own needs, style and / or personality.
There are many ways to prewrite. As a writer, my perspective is as long as the prewriting is helping serve its purpose (to generate ideas and help the writer focus and organize), then I say: do what works for you. That's what I say as a writer to other writers. As a teacher speaking to students, I say, "Here are three types of prewriting. Know the name of each. Know how to do each kind. Use one of them in your writing process. Attach the prewriting to your assignment or you will have points deducted from your final score." (Did I mention that I was mean?) Now notice, even though I am villainous teacher who makes my students not only go through a process in order to write a paper, but makes them show their work (I learned that from the even more heinous math teachers), I give the students a choice of three kinds of prewriting. They can choose to brainstorm, do a concept map or do freewriting. Generally, the only time I make them use a specific type is the first time I introduce the students to the topic and make them practice each kind. The rest of the time I just say, "Do prewriting," and they know (or learn) that I mean one of the three we've discussed in class.
I give my students a choice because some types of prewriting work better for some students than for others. For example, concept mapping (or clustering or webbing, depending on the textbook) is rather organized. It involves connecting related ideas. The writer puts the main topic in the center of the page, then adds subtopics to it and then writes subtopics of subtopics. These are connected by relationship. If, for instance, I am doing a concept map about Valentine's Day Parties I would put that topic in the middle then add the subtopic food below the main topic. Under food, I might write candy, then under candy, I might write chocolate, Sweet Tarts and strawberries. Words such as balloons or napkins would be inappropriate here. I would need a different subtopic thread, maybe decorations. And that's where the trouble arises for some students. Concept maps require logic and organization. For some writers, that can stifle creativity. For others, concept maps are simply intimidating. The writers are afraid of putting the wrong word in the wrong place. They get stuck in worrying about that and BOOM they get writer's block. This type of prewriting, then is no help to those writers in regards to generating ideas. Brainstorming, on the other hand, may work wonderfully for them since it requires no organization at all. It's simply listing words, phrases or ideas as they come to mind. This frees some writers from perfection paralysis.
The third type of prewriting that I teach my students is freewriting. I think it's a great way to deal with writer's block because it stresses that perfection is not required. The "free" part is that the writer does not have to worry about grammar, correct spelling, correct usage or even the right word. The writer doesn't even need to use complete sentences. There are just a couple of rules: 1) Write for a specific amount of time, say fifteen minutes and 2) Once you start writing, you do not stop--at all, for anything--until the time is up. If you can't think what to write next, you write "I don't know what to write now," or "La-di-da-dee-da, who who" or whatever just so long as you keep writing. Because this involves timed, non-stop writing, the result is rather messy and definitely disorganized. I have had students hand in beautifully written papers that they have labelled "Freewriting," demonstrating to me that they do not have a clue what freewriting actually is.
Today, in class, a student did exactly that. The students were supposed to have done prewriting and a rough draft for a paper assignment that will be completed next week. I gave them time to get together with a peer in order to get feedback on their rough drafts. During this time, one of my students, a wonderful and intelligent woman, brought her paper to me to ask me to check something. As I did, I noticed that there was nothing resembling prewriting among the papers she handed to me. I asked, "Where is your prewriting?" She pointed to a beautifully neat-looking draft and said, "It's there." I said, "That's not prewriting; it looks like a rough draft." She told me it was freewriting. Now, this is early in the semester, so I still have a good deal of patience with students who do not understand yet the difference between drafting and prewriting. So I re-explained what freewriting is and wrote a quick example to show her how messy freewriting would be. She told me that she can't stand mess, so she has to do her "freewriting" very slowly, printing carefully and correcting all of her mistakes. Well, that completely takes the "free" out of freewriting. Ultimately, I banned her from doing freewriting as it is a type of prewriting that, when done correctly, goes against her personality. I recommended that she try doing concept mapping. With it, she could organize her thoughts, be neat and write as slowly and carefully as she liked.
So when it comes to prewriting, remember it's a tool. The tool has a purpose: to help the writer generate ideas and narrow them into a focused writing goal. Choose an instrument that can accomplish that purpose and use the one that is best suited for you. For myself, I sometimes brainstorm ideas on paper, but often, I just start thinking of ideas and writing drafts in my head while I'm driving. But I don't have to have to hand my writing into a picky and demanding English teacher. Isn't life grand!
Tuesday, January 29, 2013
The post below has been one of the most popular posts of this blog and so I thought I would share it again.
Social media is both the boon and bane of writers. How do you feel about it? What have your experiences of using social media been like in relation to your writing career? Which medium works best for you?
Two updates regarding this post: 1) My experience of FB has improved--or had until I got hacked three times in less than a week and 2) Although SOBS didn't work as a FB group, I started a fantasy blog and have used a couple of characters from my novel as "guest bloggers." That has been working.
I hope you find the post below useful. Blessings!
Friday, April 13, 2012
Saturday, January 12, 2013
|Rising from the mists of imagination, the character took shape|
Of course, the best stories have BOTH compelling plots and engaging characters. The Hobbit, for example. I read that book in a day and it had the whole package: great plot, fun settings, a comfortable narrator and a delightful main character as well as some interesting secondary characters. It is a fantastic adventure story--but when I re-read it, it's because I want to hang out with Bilbo. I'm rather fond of his nephew as well. The Lord of the Rings is at the top of my lists of the best fiction ever written. That book has so much to offer that I'd like to teach a course on it. Still, while I can wax long about Tolkien's use of fictional historicity in the novel, about the effective and creative use of linguistics, the theologies, philosophies and themes presented in the novel and, of course, the magnificent plotting, the reason I read 1008 pages PLUS all the appendix information and then sought out every other book related to the novel (such as Lost Tales), is because of Frodo and Sam and a friendship so strong that it saved Middle Earth. And it wasn't just Frodo and Sam; all of the characters were so well drawn that I loved them all. Well, maybe not Gollum / Smeagal--but I've got to admit that he was intriguing and the story just wouldn't be the same without him.
Which brings up a final point: a character doesn't have to be good to be a good character. Darth Vader could hardly be labelled a "good guy," but he is a great character! My favorite character from the Harry Potter series is Hermione Granger (who, of course, is good), but my second favorite character (wait for it) is Snape. Even from Book One / Movie One I understood why Snape disliked Harry. And while the Professor was sarcastic beyond necessity at times, Harry was arrogant and rude to him. As a professor myself, I thought Snape showed amazing self-restraint in regards to Harry. But the best thing about the character is his complexity. Is he a villain? A hero? Both? The question is not easy to answer and I will argue that Severus Snape is J.K. Rowlin's best written, most rounded and most intriguing character. The same is true of the character of Morgana in the BBC series, Merlin. While Morgan le Faye has come down through legend as the archetype of the villainess sorceress, the creators and writers of Merlin have made Morgana too real for black and white categories. She has good reasons for what she does (although her methods may, at times, be questionable). And if you've watched the series from the beginning, you can't forget that you used to like her back when she was a compassionate advocate and protector of those who had no rights and / or were treated unjustly. And then she just had a lot of really bad stuff happen to her. I mean, if a trusted friend tried to poison you, wouldn't you get a little angry?
Since I love a great number of books and movies and have liked a t.v. series on occasion, this post could go on and on, but I'll stop with the above examples. Now it's your turn. Who are your all-time favorite characters and why? Have you read or would you read a book if you didn't like ANY of the characters? Have you re-read a book, re-watched a movie or t.v. show just because you enjoy being around the characters? (BTW, I watch Merlin episodes over and over because Merlin [the general one from Arthurian legend] is my all-time favorite character and Colin Morgan's and the BBC series' version of character is my all-time favorite Merlin).
How important are characters to you? What are some of your favorite books, movies or t.v. series and how much do the characters affect your enjoyment or interest in the story? Have you ever watched a t.v. series after the writing has gotten old, but you stuck with the series for another season just because you loved the characters?
Saturday, January 5, 2013
So what has any of this got to do with writing fiction? This: writing fiction is another thing I've done since I was young, another great source of entertainment, but it wasn't until I started writing novels that I discovered that novel writing is a fantastic way to learn something new. And I have learned about things that I probably never would have thought I wanted to know about.
Before you start working on a novel, there are things you realize you HAVE to know. For example, if you write crime drama, you'd better know about police procedures. The Writer's Digest store has a guide for writers on different types of poison. Now there's a book I would consider a must-have if I wrote mysteries! (I don't, so I didn't buy it. My apologies to the author.) My psychological mystery (okay, so I AM writing a mystery, but nobody gets poisoned in it) has a main character who was abused as a child and suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (aka Multiple Personalities). Naturally, I knew I had to research that illness, its symptoms, how it's diagnosed, how it's treated, etc. The character is a professional singer and his best friend is his artist manager, so I thought I'd do a quick check of what artist managers do. Quick check ha! I discovered all sorts of things that I needed to know in relation to the music business (manager versus agent, types of managers, touring, the difference between a tour manager, a road manager and a stage manager, the difference between a load-out and a load-in, information about booking, PR, etc.). I learned a whole lot more than I needed to for the book, but it was fascinating!
When I started working on my fantasy novel, I wanted to give it a decidedly Irish / Celtic bend because that's my heritage. I did extensive research on Celtic myths, supernatural beings, symbols, and so on. I did not, however, know that, as I wrote the book, I was going to learn about herbs. One of the secondary characters is a human-sized Faerie who doesn't have wings (Faeries come in many sizes and types--check it out!) She lives among humans. They don't know she's a Faerie. She is a healer who uses herbs, so they think she's an herbalist. I hadn't planned to do much, if any, research on herbs since the character is just my main character's aunt. However, while I was trying to work how to get the main character(Siobhan) through a dangerous enchanted forest in a believable way, I was writing scenes in which Siobhan spends the summer helping her aunt with the healing practice. Epiphany! In folklore, many herbs have magical properties. So the research began and I discovered that there are herbs that provide protection, give invisibility and even allow one to fly! Cool! Problems solved. In the process, I got hooked on the real life effects and benefits of herbs and now am thinking of starting an inside garden. When I began the novel, I had no inkling that writing it would get me into herbs.
One final research joy has been going on virtual trips via Google Earth. I had to check out a couple of areas in Brooklyn, New York and Los Angeles, California for the psychological novel and have taken visual tours of country roads in Ireland as a help to describing settings for the fantasy novel. Thank heaven for technology!
So if you are yearning to learn something new this New Year, write a novel and enjoy all the stuff you learn along the way!
Have you ever been surprised by what you've learned about while writing fiction? What are some of your favorite things you learned from reading fiction?