The Power of Description

I have a couple stories to tell you.

Two weeks ago, I was in Europe, touring with my orchestra around Austria and the Czech Republic.  At the very beginning, we drove out to a place in Austria called Gmunden.  The site of our first concert, we found it nestled inside a circle of mountains, on the shores of a vibrant blue lake.  The concert hall was right up against a little wall that dropped down to the water.  Swans swam around looking for crumbs from us, the mountains towered over the sailboats gliding over the serene blue water, and the air was clear and cool.  As for scenery, it was probably my favorite place on the trip.  (The picture on the right, while also of an Austrian lake surrounded by mountains, is actually a different lake we stopped near.  Apologies for pictorial inaccuracy.  Picture by me.)

Now hold that thought.  Last April, while I was writing Gifts of Rith, I decided I would slow down and make sure I was using the right words to tell my story.  I posted my resolution here; I decided I wasn’t going to race ahead and write whatever I wanted, but make sure everything I wrote was relevant to the story.  Unfortunately, I realized as I reread the novel on my trip to Europe, I had left out too much.  Indeed, instead of merely taking out the fluff, I also took out some of the necessary pieces for telling a good story.  I took out almost all the descriptions.

Never let it be said that I make small mistakes. Read the full post »

For Lack of a Time Machine (TCWT)

The Teens Can Write, Too! blog chain asks a lot of hard-hitting questions, and this month’s is no different.  The question is “What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started writing?”  Of course, this will be different for everyone, but one thing remains true: you can’t answer this with a very specific answer.  “Don’t use passive voice” is no help to a writer who can’t master compelling characters.  “Remember to use similes” doesn’t help someone struggling with plot.  And my current favorite advice (just because it’s so unknown yet useful) about transitions would be useless for someone with no grasp of setting.  Furthermore, advice about plot, character, or setting will be no use to someone who hasn’t yet begun to write.  So when I first began writing, I think the best advice anyone could have given me was the advice I ignored over and over and over, from all my favorite authors: just write.

I first started writing in first or second grade, when I wrote a 500-word short story over the course of a couple weeks.  I wrote another story of similar length in third grade.  I continued to write in tiny bursts of inspiration and notebook availability over the next four years, until I started a family newsletter and came into the blogosphere.  There I learned about NaNoWriMo, which I attempted for the first time three years ago.  I wrote 50,000 words easily, almost casually, then left my novel alone.  At that point, I would have long breaks where I wasn’t writing anything, then pound out a novel for a NaNoWriMo challenge or a novella for the blog, along with intermittent blog posts.  Were they all good?  No.  But they got better over time. Read the full post »

Bookends vs. Hooks

A while ago, I learned about the Hero’s Journey archetype for stories.  I’m not going to glorify it or condemn it here, but one thing that struck me was the way things came around in a full circle.  The first scene was mirrored in the last scene, contrasting what was lost and what was gained, showing the character’s growth through the story.  Not only that, it made things feel resolved— everything is as it should be.

Thrilled with that concept, I used it in my 2013 NaNoNovel Stakes, mirroring the first and last scenes so they wrapped up well.  I really enjoyed doing it, and I think it turned out well.  I did the same in my last episode of Phil Phorce, which you can still read on the blog, with a soap fight.  I had a lot of fun with that too.  However, I discarded the technique for Desolation, Gifts of Rith, and Lend Me Your Ears.  Desolation begins with the main character running from a giant beast, which is eventually destroyed and thus unavailable for the denouement.  Similarly, Gifts and Ears begin with battles, which cannot be replicated at the end.  All three began with battles and action— Phil Phorce and Stakes began with calmer scenes to introduce people, then ended with calmer scenes to wrap everything up, like bookends.

However, beginning those other three novels with action was imperative.  None had plots that would benefit from a calm beginning— to get the correct feel of the story in the beginning chapters meant starting with a bang.  However, that hook meant bookends wouldn’t work.

Obviously, both are viable options, and necessary for different types of stories.  But what are the advantages and disadvantages?  How do you make each work, and when should you use them? Read the full post »

Short Story: Smiling

This is a short story I wrote just before my last post about mysteries.  In fact, this story sparked the discussion in that post, as I tried to figure out if this would work.  I’m still not quite sure, but I’d love to hear your reactions to it.  It’s a little darker than I usually do— not as much humor, definitely.  I don’t think it’s my best work, but it’s definitely unique for me, and I hope you enjoy it.  Bonus points for unraveling the mystery.

They took my picture today.

I write this on a piece of notepaper the warden gave me.  I’m allowed to write one letter home, to you; but I’m not sure if this will get to you.  They will try to read it, but even if they do, it won’t be in time.  The mail here is notoriously slow.  And if they do read it, it will not get to you, for I will be in a different cell, possibly a different jail, pending further investigation with no contact allowed.  I will disappear, and they will be victorious.  But that is only if the mail is not slow.  It will be.

I was captured yesterday, trying to sneak a bribe to the warden.  Never mind that he took it— it was a foolish plan, ready to fall apart the moment it began.  I was easily caught.  I was sick, never a good thing on a job, and that slowed me down enough that they caught me before I had gone ten steps.  They slapped me straight into solitary confinement, then transferred me to a shared cell with a man named Sam.  Sam used to be a con artist, but turned thug the moment they put him in the slammer.  No inmate goes near him now, and he’s supposed to be in solitary, except the warden thought I’d be a good cellmate.  Sam’s been fine so far— we’ve met before. Read the full post »

Extra-Credit Mysteries

When I was younger, I read a lot of Encyclopedia Brown.  In case you don’t know, those books are structured uniquely: each book contains five or six stories about Encyclopedia Brown investigating some type of mystery.  At the end of each story, Encyclopedia Brown would have solved the mystery, but the question was put to readers as well— they could figure it out for themselves before finding the real answer in the back of the book.  It was like a book of narrative riddles, meant to cultivate a group of miniature Poirots and Marples.

I never waited to figure out the answer myself.  I always flipped to the back of the book immediately and read the answer.  I enjoyed wondering, then being satisfied, more than I did solving the mystery myself.  After all, if the author had already figured out the answer, why waste time on it?  I was perfectly happy to let someone else do the work, as long as they got it right.

However, when I was forced one way or another to try and figure out the solution myself, I never enjoyed it.  The work was already done— why did I have to repeat it?  Furthermore, I read Encyclopedia Brown so I could enjoy his superior brain power, not so I could (gasp!) learn something.  I wanted to see how smart he was and enjoy that.  Once I was forced to unravel the mystery myself, however, it became less enjoyable and more difficult— work, not play.

To a certain point, readers feel the same way about mysteries in other areas of fiction.  The mystery is there to be solved, but by the main character, not by the reader; the same way that the epic battle is there to be fought by the main character, not by the reader.  The reader has no input in the story, no say in what happens.  Thus, if the readers solving the mystery won’t help, why do it?  It’s just extra work. Read the full post »

An Ode to Brian Jacques

When asked about my favorite author, I used to say, without hesitation, Brian Jacques.  He wrote so many books, each of them vivid and wondrous and fun to read, he never left me without something to sink my literary teeth into.  His books inspired me to write.  His books inspired me to read thicker and thicker books (until I hit Robert Jordan— perhaps a little thinner now?).  His books, each of them, struck my emotions, struck my imagination, without failing me.

And he wrote animal fantasy.  Go figure.

These days, I say I enjoy Dumas, or Tolstoy— at least, when I’m talking to college admissions people.  These days, I say I enjoy Brandon Sanderson, or Cornelia Funke— at least, when I’m talking to people closer to my age.  Tolkien, Lewis, Flanagan, Riordan, Wells, D’Lacey, Stroud, Paolini, Hulick, Mull, Colfer…  The list of great authors will never end.  I don’t want it to end, as I continue to discover the Marcus Zusaks, the John Greens, the Laini Taylors, the Patrick Rothfusses (Rothfi? Rothfa?).  I always want the list to keep growing.

But my favorite author?  It always comes back to Brian Jacques. Read the full post »

Establishing Syntax in Stories

Syntax is important.  The syntax you establish in any piece of writing informs reader comprehension, pacing, and a host of other things.  Establishing that syntax is relatively simple, once you realize how many things it can do— and syntax is extremely versatile.

What is syntax?  Syntax is essentially another word for something.  It’s a dictionary you build in your audience’s head that helps them file and understand all the new information you give them.  Every time you mention a word from your syntax, they remember the idea it symbolizes.  This makes it easy to reference things that you have already explained or discussed, things that have already happened in a story, or anything like that.  Establishing this syntax makes it easy to refer to anything you’ve already noted.

I feel like I’m writing a computer program tutorial.  Bear with me for a little while and I’ll get to the fun stuff.

Creating syntax is simple.  It’s a dictionary— all you have to do is define ideas as a certain words.  Associate an explanation with a name and that name will bring to mind the explanation.  Associate a description with a name and that name will bring to mind the description.  You might not realize it, but you see this fact at work in all corners of fiction and nonfiction alike.  After all, what is a character’s name?  Naming a character doesn’t really do anything… except establish syntax.  When you describe the character, then add the character’s name, we associate the name with that character without thinking about it.  The same goes for places.  Describe a place, name it the Shire, and all of a sudden those two words bring a wealth of description with them wherever they go.  As the story progresses, emotions are added to the description, until by the end of the book, those two words are powerful enough to convey a huge amount of emotion.

That’s all well and good, but that doesn’t really help anything.  Knowing syntax exists and that we use it all the time doesn’t make us better at using it.  It doesn’t seem that important yet.  Until you see what you can really do with this. Read the full post »

Bending Over Backward (TCWT)

The Teens Can Write, Too! blog chain this month tackles heavy topics all the time, but this month’s is particularly difficult.  They ask:

“What are your thoughts on book-to-movie adaptions? Would you one day want your book made into a movie, or probably not?”

It’s a hard topic.  Fans are rarely happy about how any adaptation turns out, but they still buy tickets to their favorite book’s adaptation without question.  It’s difficult to tell who to side with: the literary world, or Hollywood.  However– and don’t stone me– I believe that it’s a problem created by the literary world.

I see you picking up rocks, but let me explain.  The novel has been around for centuries.  The motion picture has been around for one.  Its predecessor, the stageplay, was around long before that, but even then very few novels were put into plays.  Occasionally a narrated piece could be performed as a play, but as for novels… it wasn’t done.  Perhaps a scene here or there, but it was generally understood that a book could be enjoyed over a long period of time, with as many breaks in the middle as anyone could want.  A play, on the other hand, could only be enjoyed as long as the audience’s seats were comfortable– once someone needed a bathroom break, they lost interest in the play.  Books were for long-term enjoyment.  Plays were for a single evening.

Once the screenplay came along, however, the idea of mass entertainment was revolutionized.  Books already reached enormous audiences, and motion pictures were beginning to do the same– how about take popular books and make them motion pictures?  Great idea, except motion pictures were bound by the same restrictions stageplays were.  Although a hefty book deserved good representation, all the cinematic excellence in the world couldn’t combat the stupidity of the man who drank half the Atlantic before coming to the theater.  Thus, truncation in the name of time constraints was begun. Read the full post »

Multilevel Humor

Children laugh at different jokes than adults do.

It’s kind of obvious.  Children laugh at the bad guy sitting down on a pitchfork, at which adults wince.  Adults laugh at a Monty Python reference, at which children ask what’s so funny.  Children and adults laugh at different jokes.  If an adult watches a children’s movie, they’ll laugh just as much as the kids.  If a kid watches a grown-up movie, the reverse is seldom true.  But even in the children’s movie, the adults laugh at different jokes than the kids.  It’s almost like the writers are writing two levels of humor.

Breaking news: they are.  Writers of movies for young people have to cater to all ages because parents are more likely to let their children watch movies they like than movies they don’t.  A movie could be full of children’s humor, but without catering to adults, it won’t last.  Thus, writers write for both levels of humor at once, making writing for kids harder than writing for adults.  Even more than that, they have to make sure neither party is left out of any joke.  Humor is a difficult thing to nail.

Note: I will attempt to describe the different levels of humor, but as E.B. White pointed out, trying to dissect humor is ultimately useless, since it dies in the process.  What I say here is neither absolute nor meant to be taken as such. Read the full post »

Fulfilling Promises Halfway Through

Promises.  You make them to create hooks, you fulfill them to create satisfaction, and you ignore them to keep things from being too satisfying too soon.  I’ve spoken about this in depth before.  The general idea, however, is that readers keep reading because they’re looking for the fulfillment of each promise– whether the promise is unraveling a mystery, or defeating an antagonist, or learning from mistakes.  At the end of the story, all the promises are fulfilled all at once, creating enormous satisfaction.

But the end of the story isn’t the only place to fulfill promises.  Most promises are fulfilled at the very end of the story, sure, but a promise could be fulfilled as soon as it’s made, and anywhere between there and the end.  But as always, there are problems inherent in this technique. Read the full post »

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