On Hiatus

Hi everyone! Sorry I missed yesterday’s post. Life things are happening. Life most definitely is happening (and not in a bad way.)

I wanted to let everyone know I am fine and hope to be back at a time I am not sure about just yet…. Maybe a week or so, maybe a month. Depends on how things fall.

I will give more detailed info later…. A new job opportunity hit me out of nowhere over the weekend and I have a lot of stuff to get in order and to arrange. A new period of transition and adjustment is ahead, but the challenges will be rewarding and fruitful. God truly is amazing. He works on the RIGHT timeline, not ours, and so I may have to take a break from blogging for a bit in order to focus on bigger things (as much as I love the blog.)

I will be struggling for a while to wrap up loose ends as I also start weaving a new tapestry, and it will not be a simple task: nothing worthwhile ever is. I would love to be able to keep up the blog in the meantime, but something has to be trimmed down right now and the blog, unfortunately, is it. I won’t have the time or the mental capacity to keep going with my regular schedule for right now. I appreciate your kind thoughts and prayers. thanks for bearing with me!

Two Frustrations Authors Face (That Mean GOOD Things Are Happening)

“I have the best idea!!! I have to tell…. Oh, WAIT a second….”

Writing fiction is delicate, difficult, and sometimes painful work. However, some of those difficulties are lighter than most, even if the frustration is real.

I feel like my last series of posts has been pretty heavy, exploring the connections between character, characterization, and emotions such as love and hate, and even how fear can be a paralytic or a motivator.

Because of that, I thought today it could be fun to start a conversation about the “good” problems and the wonderful “frustrations” of creative writing. You know: the troubles that are indicators of good things and are unavoidable byproducts of the creative process doing what it should.

1. I just had the best idea EVER for my story…. And I can’t tell anyone.

There is a time for collaboration and getting second opinions when it comes to fiction, but that stage (for most of us) arrives long after a first draft has ended. Generally, we edit and then edit some more before anyone reads our work: even beta readers and editors. At least, that is how I work.

My favorite thing about writing is the surprises that come along when I’m writing a first draft. Many times, I don’t see a twist or a plot development coming before I actually write it.

This is so exciting for me; I love that thrill of realizing my story is going to be way more interesting than I first had realized, or that a character has more to him or to her than I anticipated.  It’s decidedly a positive development.

But it can feel so lonely not to be able to share that joy with anyone! Trying to explain–even if an author were to try– just ruins the sense of shock, the necessary sense of everything falling into place all at once. There’s too much buildup required in the explanation–too much work trying to hold the basic background structure together–for anyone else to get the same feeling you did. Plus, no one else could understand what you’re really saying. They haven’t read the book. They don’t know the characters.

All we can do is be happy about the awesome developments in our stories, whether or not we can share that joy. And we can remember that our readers, in the future, might be able to understand (albeit belatedly).

2. I have two ideas about where to take this plotline and I love them BOTH.

This situation is obviously frustrating. In fact, I’ve written about it before as one of two forms of writer’s block: I call it “the crossroads.” You’re not sure where to go or what to do next, because there are multiple options.

However, as overwhelming as standing at the crossroads can feel, I much prefer that to having no clue what to do next, or to being unable to make something happen in a believable way (when I know that one specific thing does need to occur.)

The crossroads is not a horrible place to be, for a number of reasons:

  • You can always keep writing by choosing one path, even if on a whim or at random. If you don’t like where it takes you, you can backtrack and take another road. You have gained experience from what you’ve written, if nothing else.
  • You can use the different possibilities for where to take your story as inspirations for other stories. Maybe that’s a sequel. Maybe it’s a tale completely unrelated to the one you’re writing now. The fact is, many novels or short stories are inspired by the image of one scene or one event, perhaps even one line of dialogue, that gets a writer’s head working.

So, what are some of the frustrations that come to when when writing is going well and things are falling into place?

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

For Authors: on characters with convictions

A conviction to put family first or to protect home is only one positive kind of conviction our characters might share with us

A conviction to put family first or to protect home is only one positive kind of conviction our characters might display

I’ve been writing lately about emotions and their role in fiction as part of character development. One emotional state that is important in fiction (at least to me, when I read) is conviction. If there is one thing I cannot stand, it is a wishy-washy character who cannot make up his or her mind about basic things.

You’re likely familiar with the adage, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll for anything.” It’s an adage for a reason. Now, maybe I don’t like characters who are wishy-washy (especially as protagonists) because they remind me of my own frailty and weakness. I don’t generally find it easy to commit or to make a big decision. Whatever the case, I find I most enjoy reading about characters who are sure of and committed to SOMETHING beyond themselves.

  • Maybe they are committed to a value system.
  • Maybe they are committed to promoting something they believe is good. This thing doesn’t have to be religious in nature; some great villains and even heroes are committed to promoting and protecting things like magic, or technology, or a company they started: things that aren’t evil necessary.
  • Maybe they are committed to saving or protecting their family or their nation.
  • Maybe they are committed to improving their lives one step at a time by changing themselves, confronting their fears, and learning from their mistakes.

This conviction, I have found upon reflection, is important for me as a reader. I need characters who are committed to something, and to something that takes them out of their own selfish contemplations and desires (at least to some extent).

Again, this is not necessarily a formula for a heroic or likable character. It’s a formula for any character who can be engaging. Darth Vader is committed to the Empire. Lord Voldemort is committed to promoting himself and seeking endless life for himself, which is why I personally have never felt him all that compelling as a villain. His supporters are much more interesting characters.

Anyway, I guess you could say the whole point of this post is the danger of having wishy-washy characters, especially main characters. However, it’s important to consider what constitutes wishy washy.

Now, I can only speak for myself here. This is, in many respects, a matter of opinion. I think most readers would say they don’t like weak, wishy-washy characters, even if they would disagree to some extent about what “wishy-washy” means.

WHAT WISHY-WASHY DOESN’T MEAN (FOR ME)

  • Wishy-washy doesn’t mean “a character must have a clear idea how to serve that to which he is committed.” Many times in life, we have a clear ideal or a set purpose, but feel unsure how best to reach our goal. This is not the kind of “wishy washy” I am talking about. This is just being human. If a character has a clear devotion to something, and a clear purpose, then I as a reader can readily understand the questions and doubts that arise from a desire to fulfill that purpose.
  • Wishy-washy doesn’t mean “a character cannot have a change of heart.” Even the best-meaning characters will make mistakes. Respectable people, when realizing they were wrong, will make adjustments accordingly. That might mean changing “sides,” if you realized you were supporting evil and didn’t know it. That might mean having known all along that you were doing wrong, but now, making a decision to change. This is the definition of a redemption story, not “wishy-washiness.”

For me, being wishy-washy doesn’t mean changing a commitment made in error or not knowing how best to demonstrate the depth of one’s conviction. Wishy-washyiness is the failure to commit to something (beyond ourselves) in the first place. Commitment solely to one’s self is just as off-putting to me when I read as a character who can’t decide which convictions to hold.

So, what do you think about the role of conviction in fiction? How important is it to you, personally? How do you strive to show that your character is committed to something? Which kinds of actions are most effective at doing this? I think sacrifice for something is the truest and purest way to show conviction and commitment (thought not every story makes stark sacrifice necessary or plausible).

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

 

Emotion and Characterization in Fiction: Fear as a Motivator

untitled-2-1389663-mAs authors, one of the greatest factors we have to consider are the things our characters most fear, and whether those fears are more likely to paralyze or motivate them. After all, life is all about facing fears, and if our characters don’t face or at least admit theirs, our story will be lacking something.

It won’t feel like a human story. The heart of what makes us human will likely be missing.

My last post focused on fear as a paralyzing force. In this post, I hope to start a conversation about how fear can motivate a character, and where the distinction between paralyzing and motivating fear lies.

Now, I understand the distinction I’m about to make is a huge and ridiculous generalization. I don’t pretend otherwise. I do think, though, that fear is not the only thing that can be paralyzing. Writing is a daunting task, and sometimes we need an oversimplification to help us find our confidence and find our footing.

Sometimes we need to widen the “field” a bit, in order to feel comfortable there and get settled enough to get started writing. Yes, I’m talking about a starting point here.

Sometimes, a large generalization like this can help us START to get to know our characters. Obviously, characterization does not end here. But it can begin here. A stark differentiation like I’m about to make can be a place from which to whittle down: to individualize, to personalize, and to craft something large and intricate, if only through trial and error.

That said, what is this large distinction we can make between paralyzing and motivating fear?

  • Coming face to face with a fear fully formed, a fear arrived, a fear come true: that tends to be paralyzing. It is almost always paralyzing. In fact, one of the very few things that can make it NOT paralyzing is the knowledge or reflection that, if we don’t act, we may have to face an ever greater fear.
  • This is because I think, for the bulk of people and the bulk of characters, the prospect of fear being realized is more motivating than the realization of a fear. Because we fear, we feel motivated to prevent that fear coming to full fruition.

There is, of course, another great instance of fear being motivating: when you are facing something awful, but you can recognize it for (more or less) the worst that can come to pass and you have nothing to lose, so you might as well do what you can by fighting back.

HOPE AND FEAR

Obviously, a character must have some degree of hope that his or her fears can be conquered, or at the least, that the sacrifices made as a result of confronting fear (and failing) might come to something and bear some kind of fruit.

One reason I love epic fantasy is that I feel epic fantasy, as a genre, is truly built around this paradoxical truth that G. K. Chesterton spells out so beautifully:

Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all… As long as matters are really hopeful, hope is mere flattery or platitude; it is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength.”

Fantasy literature is full of threats that have great magic, great power, and supernatural support. The typical fantasy lit villain has its drawbacks, of course. He can start to feel “bogeyman”ish and childish (as Lord Voldemort certainly would without the fully human Deatheaters to support him.)

No author requires a bogeyman villain to create an atmosphere of hopelessness, of course. And hopelessness can take varied forms. But a bogeyman villain definitely helps to promote a situation that feels hopeless.

Whatever the case, characters do need some kind of hope in order to conquer a great fear of any type. And most authors, I think, know instinctively what that hope is and where it comes from. Still, that kernel of hope that turns fear into a motivator can have multiple levels and be more complicated than it seems at first glance.

We can’t really go wrong taking a moment to ask: “What is my character really hoping for at this crisis moment? More than one thing? How does that hope break down? What’s the most important part?” I think that’s particularly true of epic fantasy and its “epic” heroes.

Characters who are able to hope that when they “fight the unbeatable foe” (to quote “Man of La Mancha”), some good may come even of defeat…. Characters who recognize that death perhaps is not the greatest evil or the greatest thing to fear remind all of us who read of that great truth.

That’s what I mean when I say fiction lacks heart and humanity if it lacks characters who admit and face their fears.

So, what do you think about fear is motivating?

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

Emotion and Characterization in Fiction: Fear as a Paralytic

skulls-1417416-mToday’s topic concerning characterization and the common forces that motivate our characters is FEAR.

Last time we discussed love and hate. Fear can somewhat intertwine or interfere with relationships of love and hate, but of course, fear is also involved when we confront or panic over things that have nothing to do with human relationships.

There are many kinds of fear. We fear death. We fear failure, perhaps because failure reminds us of our mortality in a way few other things can. We fear being snubbed or looked down upon; in other words, we fear judgment.

Then there are phobias, which take fear to strange heights that people who don’t share a particular phobia can’t even begin to understand.

FEAR AS A MOTIVATOR: OR A PARALYTIC?

One of the biggest distinctions we as authors need to make is the distinction between the two ways fear commonly and understandably affects us.

  • Either it motivates us to take action…
  • Or it freezes us up. It forces us NOT to do anything.

Of course, as with most things concerning humanity and emotions, there is no clear cut “either-or.” Fear might slow us down to a degree, but not completely. Or it might shut us down utterly, but only for a short period, after which we are able to charge in renewed with a new sense of purpose and clear cut goals.

What we fear, how those that fear is to being actualized, what our personal strengths and weaknesses are…. All these things play a part in determining to what extent a fear is going to freeze us, or freeze our characters.

Also, fear is rarely the ONLY emotional force at play when a person needs to make a decision: to choose whether, or how, to act. It can be the major factor or simply a contributing factor that authors should take in account when figuring out what a given character would do next.

Therefore, if a character’s fear is of a type that would tend to paralysis, one really has to ask whether that tendency to paralysis is strong enough to offset other motivating factors: love, faith, anger, hatred, etc. Obviously, the more a character’s paralyzing fear is able to dominate other and opposing forces, the stronger the paralysis it will cause.

COMMON HUMANITY AS AN AUTHOR’S MAJOR CONSIDERATION

Now, I don’t think this comparison among forces is something we have to really sit there and hash out for long periods. I’m not suggesting we set aside an hour or two in the middle  of writing a scene to consider all the emotional forces at work upon a character.

That is the true beauty of fiction: when we write fiction, we write about what it means to be human. Because we ARE human. We know all the emotions our characters will face, even if we have never encountered the exact situations our characters do. Therefore, our acknowledgement and understanding of such emotional balances are often unconscious and instinctual.

When a situation is particularly complex–one of those situations from which great tragedy arises, in the true and Greek sense–it can make sense, as an author, to think things through on a character’s behalf.

So, what is “true tragedy”? Sometimes a character has to choose not between a good and an evil but between two mutually exclusive goods, each of which requires sacrificing the other: duty to family and country, perhaps. Or duty to God and to king. Something like that. But in most cases, we all know  which kinds of fear are going to stop someone cold and which won’t necessarily do that.

NOT WEAKNESS

Now, I don’t want anyone thinking I’m saying that a character (or person) paralyzed by fear is necessarily weak, or that someone who is motivated by fear, by contrast, must be strong(er).

There is a huge logical fallacy involved there. The fact is, to stare great evil in the face, for what it is, can sometimes paralyze (if only temporarily) the holiest, meekest, most emotionally strong people. You must be strong enough to recognize evil for what it is in order to be struck by its magnitude.

I was watching “Doctor Who” the other day, and I saw a great example of this. The Doctor is struck almost dumb for a moment when he realizes why it is the Daleks–his greatest enemies, who live only to destroy all life forms that are not Dalek–do not destroy mad or “broken” Dalek life.

It is because to the Daleks, the hatred that all Dalek life exemplifies is beautiful.

The fact that the Daleks can see beauty and honor and awe in hatred is enough to freeze him in horrified awe, not because he is weak, but because he is able to see how truly twisted such an idea (or ideal) is.

So, what are your favorite examples from films or novels of paralyzing fear? Does anything come to mind? Maybe Luke Skywalker at Darth Vader’s classic revelation?

I’d love to get a conversation going about this topic. And don’t forget, if you enjoyed this post, to stop by again for my next post, which will explore when and how fear can motivate a character.

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

 

On Making Sure Your Characters Aren’t MIS-motivated by Love and Hate

flames

It’s so interesting how both love and hate can be symbolized by a blazing fire….

Today I want to start of series of posts on the forces that motivate characters, and I’d like to start with some reflections on topics that are often overdone, overemphasized, made cliche, or glossed over because they are such basic human emotions: love and hate.

I understand how cliche an author’s treatment of love and hatred can become in fiction. I understand it well enough that I feel like this post is a big risk. I worry that I can only give a cliche treatment of such a topic. So please bear with me. I think if we can cut through the cliche there’s a lot of consider.

The first thing that occurred to as a direction to take this post was the quote from BBC’s “Sherlock” that says:

Bitterness is a paralytic. Love is a much more vicious motivator.

I think that is very true, even self-evident upon a little reflection, so I don’t want to say too much about that. It’s quite true that love doesn’t merely turn people into sappy, defenseless schmucks or (to paint a better picture) sacrificial saints, although it can. It’s also quite true that both the schmuck and the (perfect) saint are very, very difficult characters to write in an original, interesting way.

I’d rather focus on another, far more common quote:

There’s a thin line between love and hate.

Don’t worry; I’m not getting into love-hate relationships here. The thing that strikes me reflecting on this quote is this: We are often blind when we deal with or judge ourselves, but really, the qualities and the tendencies we hate the most in others are the ones we hate in ourselves and don’t want to recognize as part of us.

To really boil my point down–and I know this loses a lot of subtlety and complexity, but it works as a basic summary– we want to respect ourselves. We often prefer to focus on our strengths and so we sometimes ignore our weaknesses. And we hate when someone who shares those weaknesses reminds us about them.

I definitely think this is true in my case, if nothing else. I hate self-pity because I’m prone to it. I hate when people blow up about the little things because I tend to be far too serious. Now, I don’t hold grudges. And I don’t hold little things that people do against them; but I do let little inconveniences bug me more than I should.

Anyway, this fact can hold true for characters. And I think it works best in fiction when it’s true in a subtle way, or subtly hinted at rather than really blasted to shreds.

I’m realizing that this is what I’m trying to pull off in my new companion piece to the Herezoth trilogy. It tells the story of “The Crimson League”-well, of sorcerer Zalski Forzythe’s coup–from the point of view of a palace servant who supports him.

She is motivated by a lot of things, but mainly by how much she hates the hypocrisy of her nobleman father, who will have nothing to do with her because she’s a bastard. She loathes him for all the flaws common to most of the ruling class that he exhibits.

What I think, though, that she really loathes is that she is a part of the noble class, or should be. She hates that she can identify with him. She loathes how a part of her she always denies does long for the things he has: the security, the luxury, the power.

I’m excited that I’ve realized this about Verony. I don’t think she merely wants revenge on him. I think the hatred that motivates her runs deeper; I think that at the core she really does hate that she doesn’t hate him more, because she recognizes that she wants the life he has.

Now, I’m hoping to reflect this under the surface.

  • I don’t plan to have any character outright accuse Verony of longing for what her father has, or necessarily even have Verony understand or recognize it.
  • I hope to demonstrate this in subtle ways. Perhaps Verony can make a throwaway comment or two about a group less prestigious than hers. Rather than have her say, “I want that life,” or “I belong there” and look like a petulant, jealous child, I’ll have her legitimately ask: “Why does he deserve those things, and not me?”

The difference there is subtle, certainly, but it’s real. And it’s important. It’s the difference between a surface-level recognition of jealousy and a deeper reflection upon a true injustice and the innate equality of all humanity. It adds a layer of complexity and makes Verony–if nothing else–a character I can respect just a smidge more.

So, what examples in literature of love and hate as motivators are your favorites? How do you try to work and balance love and hate in your writing? Any thoughts?

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

One Thing Authors Shouldn’t Leave Out of A Story’s “Big Moment”

Just because a character is acting quickly, or must REact, doesn't mean she doesn't have a real motivation for the choice she makes.

Just because a character is acting quickly, or must REact, doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a real motivation for the choice she makes.

Today’s post is about the big moments in fiction–the action-packed, “everything is changing because of what is happening” moments–and about one thing in particular that authors shouldn’t leave out when writing such a vital passage.

What inspired this post was reflecting on why I am not, in general, a huge fan of the Harry Potter films (especially the 3rd and 4th) when I love Rowling’s books as much as I do and they have impacted my life and writing as much as they have.

The answer, I realized, is particularly clear in the case of the fourth film, based upon the fourth HP book, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” (No spoiler alert necessary, I promise, though I assume that by now, most people who have any intention of reading the HP series have done so.)

THE EMOTIONAL IMPACT

I was incredibly, horribly–perhaps almost inexpressibly–let down by the fourth HP movie. It wasn’t JUST that the first half hour was so jumpy that it made little sense. My major problem was that the screenwriters, editors, and producers tried to pack SO MUCH of the story into the film that they had to condense everything.

They condensed the “Big Moment” at the end as well. And while they kept the plot largely intact, the plot hardly affected me it should have or as I expected it to. The reason?

They condensed the “Big Moment” by cutting almost all sense of emotion, of emotional implication. Now, I understand that it is much, much more difficult in film to delve into thoughts and feelings, to demonstrate fear and doubt and consolation and courage. It is harder to show what precisely is motivating a character when he has to make a big decision a very small amount of time.

Still, the “Big Moment” of book 4 is literally the halfway point of the entire series. It is a BIG moment in every sense of the phrase. It’s a moment that changes the course of the rest of the series, perhaps of Harry’s life. Without giving spoilers, you could say it epitomizes the idea of a life-shattering event.

That means it is an emotional moment. And the movie, for me, did NOT portray that aspect of the plot. In contrast, Rowling’s narrator gets inside Harry’s head.

  • We can see Harry find courage in the midst of a very real threat. We see his mental steps, follow his thought process, through the course of very exciting and engaging events that nonetheless do not swallow human issues that are in some sense larger: Who is Harry at heart? What is courage? How will Harry respond when everything he claims to be is tested? Why does any of this matter?
  • Rowling gives the emotional aftermath of the “big moment”–as characters (and especially Harry) react and begin to move forward–adequate and developed treatment. This drives home how big a moment the big moment was. Rowling puts the big moment in perspective by showing its immediate, tumultuous effects. However, the movie completely glosses over any emotional trauma. This left me unsure about how much what had happened REALLY did matter.
  • Rowling’s narrator does not rush the pace of the end of “Goblet of Fire.” And that feels somber and rightly respectful. It gives the reader as well as the characters a chance to digest the big events. The movie just blows through everything, because…. well, this movie is already almost three hours long, DANG IT! We need to wrap things up!

Now, before any fans of the HP movies have a visceral reaction, or any writers want to respond in confusion or disagreement to what I’m saying, let me make a few more points.

  • I’m not saying that a big moment has to stop, or pause, or even considerably “slow” its pacing in order to inject emotional or subjective content. I’m not even saying that there needs to be a 50/50 balance between action and thought/emotion.
  • My major point in this post is this: a moment in fiction big enough to constitute becoming a “big moment” will necessarily have an emotional impact on your characters. And that needs to be recognized. Maybe that recognition isn’t feasible in the midst of action. Maybe adrenaline is pumping and there is honestly no time to think or plan. Your characters realistically need to REACT. Nothing more. But after the fact, they will face their emotions.
  • I do understand that SOMETHING had to be cut to make “Goblet of Fire” into a movie. Unfortunately, what I feel the moviemakers ended up sacrificing was the story’s heart. All of its heart. They kept the plot without any of its commentary on the human condition. At least, that’s how it felt to me. Maybe you don’t feel the movie removed the heart of the story, and that’s certainly a valid opinion. I respect it; I just feel differently. At least we can find common ground in saying that, theoretically, it’s never a good idea for a film to cut the heart of the story it’s based upon.

So, how do you try to keep emotion–highlighting things like courage, fear, doubt, pride, anger, humility– present in some kind of balance with plot and action in the midst of a big moment? Is this something you are able to do instinctively? Do you find yourself toning some things down or drawing other things out during editing?

Which side you prefer to weigh heavier in your balance: the emotional aspects or the action aspects?

And if you’ve seen the movie “Goblet of Fire,” do you agree or disagree with my assessment of how it handles the big moment?

RELATED POSTS:

Is your “big moment” big enough to satisfy readers?

On dispersing “high tension” scenes throughout your novel

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

AUTHORS: Four Reasons We Sometimes Write (Too) Slowly

escargot-2-1382762-mWe authors love to write: and sometimes we write slowly. Sometimes that’s intentional, part of our personal process. Other times, it’s indicative of obstacles getting the best of us.

In exciting news, I have begun to balance preparing the Herezoth Trilogy’s second edition for an Autumn release–I hope to have a date soon, so stay posted!–with starting a first draft of a companion piece that tells the story of Zalski’s coup of Herezoth from the point of view of one of his supporters, a servant girl in the Palace named Verony.

This has gotten me frustrated at how SLOW the process is going. I mean, WRITING. Actually WRITING again after doing nothing but editing for so ridiculously long. Looking back, I haven’t written a first draft of something fiction-y since NaNoWriMo 2012. 2012!!!

Naturally, I’ve been examining why things are going slowly, and trying to determine whether that’s a problem or it’s just how I create. All three books in my Herezoth trilogy had long pauses and slow progress. But I ended up happy with the results. I plowed through my NaNoWriMo novel in 2o12 and am convinced it is so dreadful I can never make anything of it. (At least it’s proven good fodder and given me some characters for my new first draft.)

ANYWAY, for good or bad (or for… neutrality? neither?) here are some of the reasons writing is going slowly for me, and might be going slowly for you too.

  • The transition from editing to writing again. This switch is always a transition. I’m going from working three novels that were more or less cohesive already to the grand mess that is a first draft. The difference in quality is obvious, and I can’t help but mark it. It makes me want to fix it. Which leads to….
  • Perfectionism. Because perfectionism is always a paralyzer. A sedative. It stops you in your tracks.
  • Overthinking. Which is different than perfectionism. If nothing else, it’s a different “shade” of what we call “perfectionism.” For me, it’s the difference between being afraid of making any mistake and being afraid of making a monster error. There is a big difference between (1) wanting things to be perfect and (2) just wanting to make sure you aren’t screwing up a major, huge, early choice your protagonist has to make: a choice that, if you get wrong, you’ll have to rewrite everything. That’s not fun. And I don’t want to go to there. So I end up going nowhere.
  • Not a lot of prepwork. Some writers like to wing it. That’s why I didn’t say, “not ENOUGH prepwork.” Is it possible, when we are writing slowly, that we could benefit from more detailed, organized prewriting? Perhaps. It all depends on the individual writer, how their process works, and whether writing slowly is a frustrating thing for them or not. Again, the fastest first draft I ever wrote is one I could find no real potential in at all. Writing “fast” does not equal “good writing” in every case, for every person.

So, what do you think of this? Are you a slow writer or a fast writer? Does writing slowly frustrate you, or do you accept it as part of how you, personally, go about the creative process? Have you found that prewriting makes writing more enjoyable for you? If so, does the fact that prewriting makes writing go FASTER its major draw?

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

Narration vs Dialogue: A Clear-Cut Distinction?

1382970_talking_guysNarration versus dialogue in fiction: are they as diametrically opposed as they sometimes seem? In what ways do they overlap?

I’ve been speaking lately about how our unique styles as authors and our approaches to creative writing often boil down to where we lie upon a spectrum between two extremes, rather than simply adopting one extreme over another.

First of all, I think every writer early on discovers that they have a preference for, or are better are writing, pieces of dialogue or narrative passages. I’m sure there are exceptions to this and authors who haven’t given the matter much thought. But personally, I prefer writing dialogue.

I feel I am better at dialogue in some respects. Dialogue can be tricky, of course: especially because it has to sound natural, which means that not ONLY should the way a character says something make sense, but the simple fact that the character is speaking such and such information, at such and such a time, should make sense too.

Of course, an obvious spectrum exists between narration and dialogue if we consider what percentage of our word count consists of the former versus the latter. That breakdown could be 80/20. 60/40. 55/35. 10/90. We could place any novel on a chart and compare its makeup with other books that way.

Even that kind of spectrum, though, highlights that we often make a clear-cut distinction between narration and dialogue. We feel forced to choose between the two. Really, the two are friends, not enemies, and we should concentrate more on how to make them work together, to strengthen each other.

First of all, first person narration is very much a unique blend of dialogue and narration, seeing as every narrative paragraph written in first person is supposedly written by a character and is presented in a character’s voice.

But beyond that, there IS a fun way to combine narration with dialogue that we don’t often discuss. I only learned about this, or had my attention drawn to it, by studying Spanish grammar.

It is called “indirect discourse.”

INDIRECT DISCOURSE

We all know what dialogue is. And we all know what narration is. To put it simply, indirect discourse is when an author writes or presents dialogue as narration.

Confused? Don’t worry; it will all make sense in a second. You have definitely seen, and almost certainly written, indirect discourse before, even if you never have read that terminology.

Dictionary.com defines indirect discourse as “discourse consisting not of an exact quotation of a speaker’s words but of a version transformed from them for grammatical inclusion in a larger sentence.”

The best way to clarify that definition is through example. Here is a piece of dialogue that I’ll rewrite as indirect discourse:

“I’ll pick up the groceries after work. Just make sure to remind me. I might forget otherwise.”

Joe said he would pick up the groceries after work; just make sure to remind him, because he might  forget otherwise.

That paragraph just above is written as indirect discourse: you are told what Joe said in such a way that you could even recreate the dialogue piece by piece if you needed or wanted to. It comes in Joe’s voice but it isn’t written as dialogue. It’s included as part of a larger narrative segment, and as such, verb tenses have to change to reflect this style of presentation.

Joe might say, “I’ll pick up the groceries.” But you wouldn’t write, “Joe said he’ll pick up the groceries.” You would write “Joe said he would pick up the groceries.”

I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of tense choice here and how to use verb tense properly when writing about the past, and especially when writing about two different moments in the past, one of which represents the future of the other. This is something that (luckily) we generally understand naturally in regard to our native language, and if you have doubts or it gives you trouble, don’t worry: this is precisely why proofreaders exist.

My point her is that we get very, very used to thinking of “pure narration” and “pure dialogue” as two options. And while indirect discourse is certainly one kind of narration, it’s narration that does represent or lie closer to dialogue than most other forms.

It is an option of representing what a character has said that I, at least, often overlook. We don’t have to write a character’s words as dialogue. Nor do we HAVE to summarize what a character said in a narrator’s voice, though we could do that. We can also use indirect discourse.

What makes indirect discourse so useful is that it maintains a character’s voice in presenting what he’s said, but without forcing the breaks that dialogue naturally imposes. It keeps pace steady and it can take emphasis away from something that’s not important enough to relate in full dialogue mode.

So, what do you think of all this? Do you use a lot of indirect discourse? Do you feel it is useful in any particular kind of situation? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

AUTHORS: Is “Showing” versus “Telling” Truly Either-Or?

business-graphics-1428664-mToday I am continuing a series of post about opposites in fiction that writers often consider to be cases of “either-or” but in reality may be seen to be the ends of a spectrum instead.

By the very nature of saying that a spectrum exists, there is a whole line connecting the two “opposites,” and any particular case may fall anywhere on that line, combining qualities of each “purity” (represented by the end points) in varying degrees.

My last post examined philosophical versus action/plot-driven fiction as such a spectrum. Today, I wanted to explore the hot topic of “showing versus telling” as a spectrum.

Now, showing versus telling is such a hot topic that it honestly has become over-examined and even boring. The basic point everyone is always saying: Showing is better. Don’t “tell.” Demonstrate. Illustrate.

On a (very) simplified level, I think we all agree with this: show, don’t tell. Showing is better. The problem is that writing is never simple, and we often try to adhere to this as a hard and fast rule when really it isn’t and can’t be.

My two points today:

  • “telling has becoming extremely underrated as a narrative device
  • “showing” and “telling” are on a spectrum.

First of all, whenever we “show” in fiction, we are also telling. We may choose to “tell” that Amy ran out the room, covering her face with her hands and slamming the door, in order to “show” that she is upset, and probably upset with reason (if we know Amy is not prone to overreacting.) We may choose to “tell” what Amy does in order to demonstrate her emotional state, rather than “tell” directly that “Amy was upset by what James said.”

One one level, “telling” what Amy does is “showing” what her emotional state is. And that is one problem with saying simply, “Show, don’t tell.” It’s just not a clear enough directive.

The fact is, you can write in such a way to show one thing and simultaneously tell another related thing. Perhaps when telling that Amy ran out the door, you are also showing that her relationship with James is in trouble and even a bit dysfunctional. If another character “tells” someone that Amy is afraid of James, point blank, you just might be showing (in very few words) that Amy and James’s relation is abusive, or you might be showing that this friend is misinformed, or that this friend has an ulterior motive for making Amy angry or for spreading rumors about her (depending on the story and the circumstance).

The Upside of “Telling”

Is it always good to tell? Of course not. But are there moments when “telling” makes sense? Most definitely.

First of all, our current tendency to disparage “telling” has killed the art of description in storytelling, and that is a shame. Long descriptions can be beautiful and very much worthwhile given a particular author’s style and purpose, even if those descriptions constitute  “telling” and even if they don’t directly contribute to plot.

Fiction is more than plot. Than action. Narrative art is more than a simple account of who did what and when.

There are ways to “tell” well and ways to “tell” poorly. And if you “tell” well, you are writing well. Take, for instance, the first line of C.S. Lewis’s “Voyage of the Dawn Treader.”

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

This line most certainly tells, rather than shows, who Eustace is. Just as certainly, it works. I think it is one of the best first lines I’ve ever read in my life. Here’s why:

  • It packs a punch. And it packs a punch because it’s short. It accomplishes a lot in few words. You get a real picture of who Eustace is in far less time than it would take to “show” that.
  • It is beautifully funny. Honestly, it has a comedic effect that I just love.
  • It sets the scene and prepares the reader to be dealing with an unpleasant character. Sometimes, a reader does need to know a major character is going to be a pill. If we don’t expect it we’re far more likely to grudge it and stop reading.

I can’t imagine any editor reading that first line and telling Lewis, “Show, don’t tell!” Sometimes telling is just fine. Sometimes it just works. So if you find you have a passage that does a lot of telling, but it does it in a unique, creative, and engaging way, a way that accomplishes what you need and adds to the readability or the charm of your story, RELAX.

That’s not a problem.

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”