Thursday, April 30, 2009

Naming in a Created World: Brant's Version.

A little while back Kathryn posted Naming in a Created World, in which she discussed the ways she has for coming up with names in her world. I found this article interesting in and of itself, but also because of the differences between her approach and mine.

I developed my story in fits and starts over a very long time. Sometimes years would go by with no actual writing taking place, just random ruminations. I am a spotty note taker, and I realized after a few years I was in danger of forgetting key elements of my story. What role did certain characters play? How did they fit into the plot? Who were they in opposition to? What was their story arc? What is this place? Why is it important? What does this doo-dad actually do?

I decided to address these issues in two ways: 1) The language used when I wrote scenes for the first time, and 2) The names I choose.

With regards to the names of characters, I tried to choose names that crystallized the character for me personally. I named one central character after Artemis, the Greek goddess of hunting, forests and hills, child birth, virginity, fertility. A huntress carrying a bow and arrows. With the name Artemis I captured the image of my character and defined much of her personality.

Another character I named Morel Rihtwis. This is a joining of the medieval words for moral, right, and wise. Again, when I read the name I know this character instantly. There is no doubt about how I should write his scenes.

My biggest exception to this scheme for naming characters is my protagonist, Damon Roth. I named him because I like the sound of the name as it rolled off my tongue. It was only later that I discovered it derived from the Greek story of Damon and Pythias, a story symbolizing trust, loyalty, and true friendship. Damon as a name means constant one. I fell in love with the symbolism, at how well it dovetailed with my thoughts about the character. I began using the ideas to frame much of Damon's character arc.

For me, names of people, places, and things became placeholders. Post-it notes within the story to remind me what I was thinking when I jotted down a quick thought. It is a technique which has served me well.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

We Have a New Member

Magic City Writers has a new member. I haven't asked her if I can use her name yet, so I will just refer to her as L.

She attended her first meeting yesterday. I think it went very well. Everyone got along, lots of good conversations, and I believe we are all on the same wavelength as to the purpose of the group.

L. is very interested in getting her work to publishable quality. We did a few writing exercises and I can state she has a nice, clear style; plenty of good ideas, and is capable of a clever turn of phrase. I look forward to chance to review her first submission.

I have invited L. to post here as well. We'll see if she avails herself of the opportunity or not. In any event, on behalf of the Magic City Writer's, I welcome L. to our small, quirky, group.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Avoiding the Infinite Edit

I am currently editing The Wizard’s Spells..., the first chapter of Gods Among Men, again. I have edited it many times before, but I think it is very close to being truly "finished". Of course, I thought it was "finished" a while back.

I thought The Wizard’s Spells... was really good when I first submitted it to the writers group. Their comments made it clear the chapter wasn't bad, but it wasn't good either. Someone reading that version for the first time would likely get bored during certain sections and skim pages at a time. I took the group's comments to heart, focused on the weak or slow sections, and worked to make the chapter better.

I submitted The Wizard’s Spells... to the group again a couple of months ago. This time it was good, but not as good as it needs to be. Most of the problems were minor, mostly tightening sentences or reducing excessive descriptions. But the middle section was still mediocre at best. It was an info-dump. A long winded section that brought the momentum of the chapter to a slow crawl.

Again I took the group's suggestions to heart. I reworked the middle third of the chapter almost from the ground up. It was easier than I thought. Substantially easier than the nightmare that was rewrite of chapter three, ...Warns The Ruling Circle,....

The end result is a chapter that I believe is really, very, good. The Wizard’s Spells... has become a focused, well-paced, interesting introduction to a fantasy world and an epic story. Which is what I wanted all along.

Since the middle section required a major overhaul, I will likely submit the chapter one last time to the group. Just to make sure it is as improved as I think it is. I sure there will be more problems, and I will address them, but this should be the last time this chapter will be reviewed until I submit it to an agent or a publisher.

I say "last time" because I believe there are no more major problems with the chapter. It is possible to edit a chapter over and over and never "finish" it. I could reword sentences and rewrite the same scene over and over. Infinitely editing the same chapter, never moving on to the bigger story. At some point you have to draw a hard line and say, "Yes it could be better, but it is good enough as it is right now."

There is no perfect sentence, no perfect way to tell a scene. To try and achieve perfection is a fool's errand. A proper goal is to achieve a great moment. A turn of phrase that sticks in the reader's mind, an image that burns itself into their memory. An acceptable result is to not bore the reader, to keep them from deciding your story is not worth reading.

I may, just may, have a great moment or two in The Wizard’s Spells.... The major accomplishment, however, is that I have come very close to removing all the clutter that might drive readers away.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Naming in a Created World

I have this great world all planned in my head, and have written a great deal of it down. The only problem is that they all have strangely Earthen names, like Sarah, Robert, Jeff. I want the names to be as unique to the story and the world as they are to the character, and run-of-the-mill names just won’t do. So I try my hand at creating names from scratch. Problem is, I am not a linguist, and names that look cool typed aren’t always easy to pronounce. How memorable can the characters be if their names are unpronounceable? Cases in point: Cedrixaz, Inzinnene, and Borieatla (real names from the current story I am working on, I’m afraid).

I have found a few ways to deal with this. The first is to look to the baby naming books, a standby for any writer that doesn’t write non-fiction. I can find one or two names for a hard to fit character that are real names, but are unusual or exotic enough to be worth keeping. Two of my secondary characters were renamed like this: Cirsara was renamed Cashil (which means spy), and the unnamed brother has now become Derien (a city in Georgia).

Another way to deal with the unpronounceable is to make them semi-unusual. Take a name that is easy to pronounce, and simply add a suffix or prefix to it. That way, if the reader (or even characters in the story) don’t want to use their whole name, they can still pronounce it. You can sometimes even get away with just adding an extra letter, usually a vowel, to the name to make it sound more other-worldly. Three of my characters have this feature: Diagna (Diana with a G), Saramants (Sara with –mants), and Verahadraad (Vera with –hadraad).

If the character is actually foreign to your world, it is okay to leave that hard to pronounce name attached, as many on the world may also have a problem with it. Again, two of my characters are from off-world originally, and therefore have names strange to the planet. However, they also have more common sounding names that people use everyday. Vico and Starimin were transplanted to this world when theirs collided with its moon. On their world, their names not only were hard to spell, but elongated the older they got. Starimin’s full name is Starimin Cedrixaz-en’toupo-degritions-en’for-delawn’sha’ysee. Her father Vico’s name is even longer, and he almost never gets to use it.

As for the naming of a place, I relied on two sources that were full of names to pull from. Many of the place names on the surface of my world were pulled from Biblical place names. Examples are Bethel Bara and En-Hakkore. In the watery underworld of my planet, most of the place names were pulled from scientific names of whales and dolphins, like Physeter (former genus for sperm whale) and Novaeangliae (specific epithet for humpback whale). Cool names, and I already have a list available to choose from.

Realistically, you can pull names from anywhere. I even read a book once where the character’s names were license plates, like Z3435R. If you can pull that off, more power to you. Me, I will continue to use what I know to fill in the gaps of what I want to know, all while making sure that future readers won’t get stuck on something silly like pronunciation.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Grammar: The Bane of My Existence

Grammar and I have a hate-hate relationship.

I have long wanted to understand grammar, I know people who understand grammar, and I have had various grammar rules explained to me over and over and over again.

It sounds like gibberish. Not Lewis Carroll gibberish, which I understand. More like its a game someone with short-term memory problems is making up while they are playing.

I consider myself fairly clever. I did well in school and have two bachelor degrees and a masters degree to show for it. I almost minored in literature! I have excelled at hard, complicated, subjects. I work as a computer programmer and regularly deal with complicated issues that I alone seem able to untangle.

So why is grammar so freakin' hard to understand?

I write by the sound of the sentence, the rhythm of the words. There is a beat to language which I cannot express but do hear. That is enough for me to find the path to tell my stories. But eventually, inevitably, someone says something like, "I like your ideas, but you need to work on your grammar."


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Adding What You Know to Your Work

It happens to me all the time. I start to write a story, and before I know it has spiraled off into something I feel I have no control over. Take my current endeavor for example. I started off writing a story about a conflict between sisters, and the current revision is a political drama. Politics? I don’t know nothing ‘bout writing on politics! What’s a writer to do?

The best way I have found so far is two fold. The first step is to seek outside assistance. If you like the turns your story is taking, but not sure how to continue, simply ask a friend for help. Sometimes the solution isn’t really as dire as you make it out to be, and a fresh pair of eyes will figure that out. Or look to the blogs out there (and here) that are filled with writers giving advice. Or read books in your genre that deal with these kinds of problems. Or join a writer’s group and have a brainstorming session. There are many ways to deal with this part of the solution.

The second step is to add in things you know. Again, I look to myself as an example. I know very little about politics, but I do know a fair bit about the Civil War. At its heart it was about the politics of the day, and had a fair bit to do with the ‘division of a house,’ to paraphrase Abe Lincoln. When I started to feel overwhelmed with the political nature of a certain scene, I look to my trusty and well-used stash of Civil War books for reference.

Now, you won’t see any direct references, like a character named Stonewall or a bearded president with a desperate need for a sandwich (especially since their leaders are women). But, you might find an indirect correlation on how the two factions, split between two enigmatic leaders, differ on certain subjects they are more than willing to fight over. This helped me a great deal in getting the political aspect of my story off the ground. One problem down, only a million to go.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

I've Finished Editing Chapter Three, Again

I just finished one of the longest, hardest editing tasks I've ever undertaken.

Several months ago my writing group reviewed the third chapter of my epic, Gods Among Men, entitled …Warns the Ruling Circle,….

They weren't enamored. I received a long, long, list of recommended changes. I would like to have ignored their suggestions, but that would defeat the purpose of the group. Besides, they were right about the problems.

I spent a couple of months just staring at the list. Making the changes required to address the problems was a staggering challenge. It required snapping the chapter into pieces and reconstructing it almost from the ground up. Characters had to be reworked and scenes completely altered. Finally I bit the bullet and ripped the chapter into pieces and put it back together one word at a time.

For a minor chapter this would have been a tall order, and …Warns the Ruling Circle,…. is no minor chapter. It is the chapter where I introduce the characters who occupy the hero role in my story, and first reference the character who will be the principle villain. This chapter has to work.

(I know, "What was I doing in the first two chapters if not introducing the heros of villians?" I was introducing the protagonist and the anti-hero. That is a subject for another post.)

I must admit, the group, as usual, was right. The reworked chapter is far stronger. It will likely need another editing pass, but I doubt it will need another wholesale makeover. It still has the elements I need for later in the story, but now it reads like something close to a finished work. There are passages that make me feel proud as a writer, including some that wouldn't exist if I hadn't been pushed into making these changes.

Now I need to get to work on their suggestions for chapters 1, 2, and 4.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Purpose of the Opening Line

I was at ImagiCon a few weeks ago and one of the authors raised a rhetorical question. "What is the purpose of the first sentence of your story?" he asked, then replied, "To get people to read your second sentence."

I am, at best, ambivalent about this sentiment. Certainly the first sentence should not make people drop the book in disgust, but should the opening be a snare for readers?

I did not choose first sentence in Gods Among Men for others. I wrote the opening over and over, trying one starting point after another, until I finally found a formulation that felt right.

My final choice for the opening sentence introduces my central character and established a starting scene. It leads naturally into a first paragraph crafted to inform the astute reader what to expect from the whole story. The first paragraph is mirrored by the last paragraph of the entire multi-volume epic. Thus Gods Among Men is framed by two paragraphs designed to fit together. They form the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega.

Does my first sentence make readers want to read the second? I don't know. I do know it is the right starting point for the tale I want to tell. I have been told, on more than one occasion, that a different opening might be better. Perhaps, but replacing that paragraph, to me, undermines a structure important to the overall plot.

I can easily replace almost every other sentence or paragraph in Gods Among Men, I can rewrite whole chapters. But the opening paragraph, the opening sentence, is hard to change without disrupting something fundamental to the story.

Monday, April 6, 2009

A MacGuffin Is Not Something On McDonald’s Menu.

Alfred Hitchcock described the MacGuffin as an object around which the plot revolves, something the characters care about but which the audience doesn’t. The characters fight for the MacGuffin, betray each other for it, steal for it, kill for it, die for it. It is the One Ring, the Maltese Falcon, the secret plans vital to defeating the Nazi’s, the valuable necklace someone risks prison to acquire.

In my previous post I told of how I first started thinking about my major story, Gods Among Men.

One day I was having a daydream in which I envisioned a dwarf, dressed in armor, carrying a war-axe, creeping through an overgrown forest. Any player of role-playing games can see where this goes. The dwarf is part of a diverse party, there are monsters nearby and a fierce battle ensues. The party’s wizard is isolated, trapped by an Orc warrior, with no hope of escaping. In desperation he reaches into his satchel and…pulls out a .44 Magnum Revolver and shoots the Orc.

Nothing now remains of that original daydream except for the wizard’s satchel. Not the dwarf, orc, wizard, or gun, just the satchel that the gun came from.

Why the satchel? Without going into details of my plot and mythology or the strange path I took in developing both, making the satchel magical made other problems easier to solve. Giving it special properties with well-defined behaviors made plot twists possible that would have been difficult otherwise. The more important and powerful I made the satchel the easier it became for me to write the story.

Of course, once the satchel became a powerful magical item, it became valuable to the characters. Who has it at any given moment becomes important. If the hero loses the satchel, or the wrong person seizes it, that event creates dramatic tension.

Over many years that satchel became the focus of much of the action in Gods Among Men, became the glue that tied the various plot threads together. It went from a minor detail of a daydream to the item characters fight for, betray each other for, steal for, kill for, and die for.

That satchel became my MacGuffin.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Where did my story idea come from?

Much like Brant stated in his last blog, many if not all of our ideas come from dreams: daydreams, visions in the night, flights of fancy. The novel I am currently writing is no exception, but it developed in a slightly different way than Brant’s did. I started with a flight of fancy, a spark of imagination, and a lot of pen and paper. Add a little bit of Socratic method, and voila! I have a story.

I remember when I was a kid watching TV there were these extremely colorful commercials for LA Girl shoes (or whatever). I really liked the jumping around and dancing that they did, which didn’t inspire me to buy shoes. They inspired me to draw. As I started drawing dancing girls with kicky shoes, I began to think ‘these would make neat superheroes’ (My drawings wander as far away from reality as my thoughts tend to, so just bear with me).

I eventually came up with what looked like a dorm full of girls all wearing leotards with long hair. I had to give them names, so I came up with a well of names based on shapes: Diagna, Squarema, Cirsara, Starimin, Diamants, Rayona. Weird names, true, but names none the less. Each girl’s leotard had their shape in white on a black leotard, later to be covered by a skirt and finished off with knee-high boots (like most superheroes).

Where did they come from? They were all from a far away planet (again, like most superheroes). Who was their leader? Their leader was Diagna, princess and future queen of their planet. I was (and to a large extent still am) a feminist then, so I created a matriarchal society, where men were pretty much excluded from holding office. Why were they on Earth? They were on a secret mission. What mission? To find Diagna’s sister. Why? Because she tried to kill Diagna (cue music).

This idea festered in my head for quite a while. Why on Earth would a sister want to kill another sister? I had a sister, and she got on my nerves sometimes, sure. But I couldn’t imagine anything she could have done so evil that I would rather live without her in my life. For a long time, I focused on the back story of the planet and the royal family, even imagining archaeological digs unearthing ancient civilizations that had presidents and patriarchal societies, which gave credence to how they live today.

The idea has been greatly tweaked since then. They aren’t superheroes anymore, but troops in military squadrons. Most of the names have changed from shaped names to something a little less weird (except Diagna, I love that name). They never came to Earth (at least not yet), but they are still looking for Diagna’s sister in this book. And that’s all I am going to tell you. My point for this blog is that ideas can come from anywhere. It is just how you push and pull at the edges that creates the interesting shapes that make up a story. Now, go draw for a little while…

Where Does a Story Begin?

Where does a writer get their ideas from? For me, and I suspect for most writers, it begins with daydreams. ‘Begins’ is the key word there. What happens because of the daydream distinguishes audience from storyteller, storyteller from writer, and writer from author.

A daydream is our imagination, often our sub-conscious, telling us a micro story, a fragment of a scene. We are our own audience. We listen and watch as a scene plays out in our head, enjoy the moment, then go about our day. Usually the dream is forgotten almost as soon as it is over. We never cross the boundary from audience to storyteller.

A storyteller sees something in the daydream that makes them stop and pay attention to it. It may be no more than a flash of stray thought, but it is enough to wake the conscious mind and bring to bear its full faculties. There are questions to answer and details to flesh out. It is not enough for the storyteller to merely experience the fragment of the scene, they must expand out it until it is but one small part of a story arc.

For me, my major work, Gods Among Men, began decades ago when I was a teenage geek. I was an avid player of Dungeons & Dragons. One day I was having a daydream in which I envisioned a dwarf, dressed in armor, carrying a war-axe, creeping through an overgrown forest. Any player of role-playing games can see where this goes. The dwarf is part of a diverse party, there are monsters nearby and a fierce battle ensues. The party’s wizard is isolated, trapped by an Orc warrior, with no hope of escaping. In desperation he reaches into his satchel and…pulls out a .44 Magnum Revolver and shoots the Orc.

That was the moment I stopped and thought, Where the hell did that come from? How had a modern firearm ended up in a medieval fantasy world? Is it from the distant past? If so, how could both gun and bullets be in good working order and not rusted or otherwise degraded? How did the world change from one based on technology to one based on magic? How did the wizard get the gun? Where did he find bullets? How did he learn to use it? How and why did the gun end up in his satchel? Is there something special about the satchel itself?

These and a host of other questions began to plague me. I had to have answers that made sense to me. I began to fill in these details, to turn the scene into a consistent part of a larger story arc. I had crossed the line between audience and storyteller.

The jump from storyteller to writer is much harder. A writer takes the raw elements of story and translates them into words. What doesn’t work is thrown away, what does work is refined. Characters are developed, given motivations, and put in opposition to each other. Comedy, drama, and tragedy are included in careful measurements to move the plot forward. A beginning and ending for the story is found. The original daydream may be lost entirely or made unrecognizable to any but the writer.

I am now a writer. My work is incomplete, but I am writing it day by day, week by week. I know where it starts and how it ends. I know all the major plot points. I have defined the principle characters, what their motivations are, and determined their character arcs. I know who lives and who dies, whose dreams are fulfilled and whose are shattered.

The distinction between writer and author is simple to define, but is a jump harder to make than the one from storyteller to writer. An author has a completed work published and read by others. An author has readers that turn each page wondering what will happen next, an audience emotionally invested with the story. An audience that knows nothing about the origins of the story, of how the story was written in fits and starts over months or years. They only have the author's completed work before them. Whether they enjoy or hate it is a combination of their personal tastes combined with the author’s skill.

I am not yet an author. I have a first draft of the first book of my series. It has good elements and bad. It requires a lot of rewriting before it is ready for publishing. Because of the nature of my story, I will likely have to write at least some of the other books in the series before I have a realistic chance at publishing any of them. I fear I may have to write all seven books in the series, or at least the first four, because there are no other places where I can say, “Here is a completed story arc.”

I am not deterred. After all, what worth is victory that comes without obstacles? I will be an author some day. How this will come to pass I cannot say. It is a mystery. One I am dying to find out how it ends.