Rethinking Originality

Foxes and cubsWriters talk a lot about creativity and originality. We spend hours trying to come up with ideas that haven’t been seen before; many of us dream about writing the innovative work that changes the face of a genre forever. Seldom do we pause to ask ourselves why we’re on this quest for novelty. I think we should spend more time doing exactly that.

It’s true that people get bored when presented with the same information over and over again, and we often find ourselves believing that readers want to see something they’ve never encountered before. However, a quick scan of the best seller list will tell you that this assumption is mistaken. Time and time again, readers turn into books with familiar plots and common character types. That’s what it means to develop a preference in literature – you seek out a new book not just because it promises something different, but also because it promises more of the same.

So how valuable is that “something different?” And where does it come from? Obviously, readers want something in your story to be new to them. If it isn’t a unique setting or a bizarre, experimental narrative, then that something may well be your unique perspective on the world. This perspective shines through in your writing style, in the way you discuss the plot points, and in the way your characters interact.

It’s this intimate, unpretentious kind of originality that many readers are looking for in their next good read. Just as people are unique and interesting despite their similarity to each other, a story can be creative and original even if it is derivative in some ways. The important thing is to make your personality shine through the prose in such a way that your readers will be happy to count your work among their literary friends.

Adding Depth with Dialect

DCP_0165Although it’s possible to write in perfectly correct APA or MLA style, it’s difficult to define “correct use of English” on a broad scale. Due to regional and cultural variations in syntax, vocabulary, and pronunciation, what counts as correct English in one group may sound atrociously incorrect to another. These different variations of the English language are known as dialects, and learning to use them correctly is an important part of perfecting your fiction.

If you’re writing characters who come from a variety of social, cultural, or geographic backgrounds, then you should pay careful attention to how dialect shapes their speech. For instance, a character from a working class background is not likely to be a stickler about “who” and “whom,” while a college professor is more likely to use elegant speech in casual conversation. Using a variety of dialects adds depth and realism to your prose and helps your reader draw distinctions between characters.

Of course, it pays to use dialect carefully. Avoid annoying your reader by writing in such a strong dialect that your prose becomes incomprehensible; usually, a few of the most notable verbal tics are enough to give readers a good sense of your characters’ dialect. In addition, keep in mind that many dialects are an important part of contemporary cultures. Being respectful and doing your research is a good way to avoid crossing the line between colorful dialect and embarrassing stereotype.

Proper use of dialect is an important part of developing a complex, varied cast of characters for your prose. Although you shouldn’t use it to the point where it’s obnoxious, using a few variations on the English language can help your reader understand your characters and get engaged with your story.

Do Your Characters Really Need Secrets?

Lady orchidOccasionally, writers get it into their heads that secrets between characters are an essential part of good storytelling. While there are some very good stories that hinge on one character keeping a secret until a critical moment, the reality is that many stories suffer, rather than benefit, from the added complication of characters keeping secrets.

When you’re debating whether or not your story ‘needs’ a secret as part of its plot, the first thing to consider is how long you intend the story to be. If you’re writing a short novella of 10,000 to 30,000 words, for example, then you’re already working with very limited space for character development as well as the exposition of your plot. If you choose to complicate that plot by having one character keep a secret until the last minute, you risk confusing and alienating your readers.

However, if you’re alright with your story’s plot being driven entirely by one character’s secret, then you can use this narrative device effectively in a short work. Be sure to let the reader know early on that the character is hiding something – maybe have an unusual action go unexplained, or have an apparently uneducated character possess a wealth of knowledge in a specialized field. As the story goes on, these bits of information can become more frequent and more tantalizing, until the secret is revealed in the climax of the story.

There is always some plot complication – whether it’s secrets between characters, lies that your characters believe, or untold stories from a character’s past – being touted as ‘essential’ to an interesting story. While there are plenty of interesting stories that hinge on some plot complication, you should be careful when using them in shorter works. If your plot does not focus heavily on the surprising element, then it may be a good idea to leave it out entirely.

The Expected and the Unexpected in Archetypal Characters

Pomegranate - texture when splitAvoiding ‘cookie cutter characters’ is a sound policy for writers. At best, your stories will turn out to be predictable and boring if you fill them with characters your audience has seen before. At worst, you’ll be ridiculed for your laziness and branded as a plagiarist for the rest of your career.

However, there’s no need to panic if some of your main characters bear a strong resemblance to the main characters of another story. In fact, many well-crafted and popular works of fiction are built around characters that fit into a well-known mold. We refer to these characters, who have traits that make them unique but still conform to a common profile, as ‘archetypal characters.’

The psychologist Carl S. Jung discusses archetypes heavily in Man and His Symbols. Archetypes, Jung explains, function as symbolic representations of important elements of our personalities. The ‘lone wolf’ archetype, for example, represents our drive to be self-sufficient and free from depending on others who could prove unreliable or untrustworthy. Although John McClane, James Bond, and Batman have unique personalities and will never be confused with one another, they all fit into this same archetypal mold.

Audiences like reading about archetypal characters not just because we can all identify with them on some level, but also because they give us a set of expectations that the writer can play with for our amusement. Some of these expectations are essential to the archetypal character and should not be subverted too drastically, but others are less essential and can be played with more freely. For example, readers may feel a little disappointed if the stoic warrior breaks down and becomes a believer in the Power of Friendship ™ at the end of the book; however, they will be delighted to learn that he has a soft spot for soppy love ballads or a tendency to be extra-cruel to enemies who abuse animals. Subverting some of the elements of archetypal characters makes them unique, and it sends the hopeful message that we’re not as defined as we think we are by the roles we play in our own lives.

Archetypal characters make a writer’s job easier, but they are not as effortless to use as a character that’s simply been stolen from another work. When writing an archetypal character, writers should be observant of not only what the reader expects of these characters, but also what the reader does not expect.

Why Your Fiction Needs Flat Characters

My Pictures0004Good writers are always striving to develop dynamic, memorable main characters in their fiction. A story’s protagonists and antagonists should have clear, compelling motives; they should undergo a clear change as the story progresses; and they should be fleshed out enough to be believable. If your story’s cast is full of one-dimensional characters whose lives remain unchanged throughout the narrative, it will be difficult to keep the reader’s attention.

However, you still shouldn’t assume that all of your characters need to be popping off the page as much as the stars of your story. Many settings require you to include a supporting cast of characters who are necessary to the world of the narrative, but unnecessary to the narrative itself. If you take the time needed to develop every minor character who appears, then your narrative can easily turn into a bloated mess that confuses your readers more than it entertains them.

Many writers don’t like to think of themselves as using flat characters intentionally, but there is no need for a flat character to be a boring character. You can easily bring flat characters to life in the reader’s mind by using one or two unique, memorable traits to describe them. Although you don’t want to denote characters with quirky traits to the point where they all become gimmicky caricatures, you can draw the reader’s interest by describing a few interesting, memorable details. It’s easy to picture the waitress in worn out Chuck Taylors, for example, and we can make some assumptions about what she might be like, but this brief characterization doesn’t draw us away from our heroine’s nervousness as she waits for her date to arrive at the restaurant.

Effective writers make their minor characters flat for the same reason that they make their major characters round and dynamic: to draw the reader’s attention and hold it for the duration of the story. Although using vivid and interesting details can help bring minor characters to life, there is no need for an excess of information about them.

Whisking the Reader Away with a Historical Setting

DCP_0145From the ancient streets of Babylon to the smoky speakeasies of the Prohibition Era, historical settings are a favorite of readers and writers alike. Whether a story is built around a significant event in history (like the Bite Me series) or simply set during a well-known period (like the equally fabulous Lackadaisy), historical fiction offers the reader a chance to get lost in a world that is at once foreign and familiar.

Extensive and intimate research is the key to using a historical setting well. If your story is set during the Napoleonic Wars, then the readers are already vaguely familiar with the world of your story. If you only tell them what they already know about your historical setting, you’re not letting the historical setting live up to its potential – and worse, you’re likely boring your reader. Instead, lead the reader into your period setting with interesting and accurate details that bring the world to life.

Obviously, you should not be so pedantic about your historic details that you turn your novel into a history lesson. The reader should be able to get a good sense of how your characters live, what kinds of work they do, and what kind of social structures they need to navigate on their way to get what they want. Even though you need to be accurate in order to create a convincing world for your reader, be careful not to get so involved with the setting that you under-develop your original ideas. The idea with historical fiction is not to tell the reader “what really happened,” but rather to tell the reader “what really could have happened.”

Well-researched historical settings give the reader an exciting, engaging tour of times long past. While major events can and should influence your narrative, intimate details about everyday life are what will make the story vivid and interesting.

Avoiding the Dreaded Info-Dump

BidetWriters must deal with a paradox when they work to make their fiction realistic. On one hand, the reader needs to have enough information about the story’s world that they can picture the scenes as they unfold. On the other hand, the reader also expects characters to talk like they live in that world and refrain from making long speeches about basic information.

Those of us who enjoy campy movies are familiar with the awkward, stilted effect created when a character explains facts that the other characters already know. In these moments of clumsy exposition, known as “info dumps,” the character’s speech becomes detached from the rest of the dialogue; while the words may be nominally directed at the other characters, they are useful only to the reader. Not only is the flow of the narrative disrupted in an awkward expository speech here, but the speaker also veers dangerously close to the “fourth wall” between the story’s world and the reader.

The easiest and most common way to avoid info dumping is simply spreading out your story’s exposition. Important facts about your world can be casually mentioned here or there when they flow naturally into a conversation. This happens all the time in real conversation, and this technique will provide your reader with a pleasant and interesting introduction to your story’s world. Mastering the placement of these expository snippets takes some time and practice, but your writing will be less awkward and more sophisticated as a result.

Authors in all genres must strike a careful balance when writing exposition. Too little information can leave a reader confused and bored with the story. Too much information at once, however, can produce an uncomfortable and stilted result that disturbs the world’s realism. Learning how to spread out your exposition in brief, well-placed snippets is critical to finding this balance.

In Praise of the Drabble

Praying mantis with sinister shadowThe drabble has two things working against it when it comes to being considered a Serious Tool for Serious Writers. For one thing, it’s usually a work of fanfiction; for another thing, it’s always a work approximately 100 words long. Although the drabble may seem too frivolous to incorporate into your writing toolkit, I’ve found this ultra-brief story form helpful in a few important ways.

Efficiency of language is one of the main lessons you learn from a drabble. For writers who’ve never seen a lengthy adverbial phrase they didn’t like, writing drabbles is a marvelous way to learn how to use more powerful, compact words instead of weak, meandering descriptors.

Drabbles also help us learn the fine art of getting from A to B where a plot development is concerned. We’ve all been there – knowing that we desperately need to push the story forward, but afraid to drop the hammer and make that event happen. However, in 100 words there is no time to waste in a vain attempt to ease an event slowly into the story. Writing drabbles forces us to make things happen in a very short span, and they’re an excellent opportunity to practice writing your characters’ reactions to change.

Lastly, the simple act of writing 100 words can teach us valuable lessons about managing the labor aspect of writing. Especially when we’re young, we can easily feel cowed by a word count goal. Knowing that it takes minutes to write 100 words is a good first step planning a work of 1,000 words; from there, it’s not so hard to move up to longer and longer works.

As far as literary forms go, the drabble ranks somewhere between the Tweet and the one-scene drama in terms of prestige. However, its humble reputation belies its incredible usefulness in teaching us to be more efficient with our language, more decisive with our plot development, and more conscious of the pace at which we work.

Finding time to write

643023In theory, writers love to write. In reality, it’s much more difficult than that.

Let’s face it: Writing is hard. Not only the act itself, but everything that comes with it; the frustration, distractions, dry spells of ideas and, of course, finding the time. This can often be the most difficult thing at all. Writing takes time; and in this world, none of us have very much of it.

Being a writer takes a great deal of commitment. The fact is, if you want the time to write, you have to make that time. If you wait for a ‘good moment’ to come along, you are going to be waiting for some time. The following are some tips on how to get yourself writing regularly, thus being more productive, and more satisfied with your output.

1. Stop procrastinating.

You might be having trouble finding time to write because you are giving other things that can wait priority. When you get a free couple of hours, thinking, ‘I could write now, but I need to rearrange my bookshelf/tidy my desk/vacuum my car’ isn’t good enough. These are things that can probably wait, and do not need to take priority over your valuable writing time. Making the excuse that you are ‘uninspired’ or ‘not in the mood’ isn’t good enough either. Give yourself a push. Sit down at your computer or notebook and just get started. Once you’ve got a couple of word down, you might find you can’t stop. If your apathy does remain, don’t give up on yourself. You can always try again tomorrow.

2. Start writing every day.

Though it’s certainly easier said than done, one sure-fire way to make sure you are more productive is to get into the habit of writing every day. It doesn’t have to be for long; a few words while you’re having a cup of coffee in the morning, or during your lunch break; whenever you find a spare moment. You might think that having such little time means that it isn’t worth writing anything, but only writing little bits and pieces will soon build up. Alternatively, decide that you are going to set aside half an hour, at the same time every day, to write. Stick to it. It might be hard at first, but a little self-discipline and motivation and you’ll find yourself sitting down at your set time every day automatically. Most importantly, enjoy it

3. Read regularly.

The best writers are the best readers. If you are not reading regularly, how do you expect to expand your vocabulary and pick up new techniques from other authors? Reading will always provide you with inspiration, which will make you want to write. It’s much easier to find time for something when you really want to do it.

4. Rearrange your schedule.

If you go to bed and get up at the same time every day, change it. Either go to bed an hour or so later and give yourself that extra time to write, and, if possible, sleep in for an extra hour in the morning. Or vice versa; go earlier and awaken earlier. Whichever works better. Sleep is important, of course, but small sacrifices and changes to your daily routine may need to be made, if you really want that precious time to write.

5. Don’t tell yourself that if you can’t write thousands of words every day, then it’s not worth writing at all.

This is completely untrue. Just 500 words a day will keep your writing skills sharp, and, every day, you will feel a sense of accomplishment at getting something written. Over time, these small amounts will add up. True, it might not be possible for you to be as productive as somebody who has all the time in the world to write; but just remember, few of us are lucky enough to have that time. Most well-known writers, past and present, had or have day jobs. If they found the time to write their masterpieces, then so can you.

Finding time to write is just as much about making yourself write as it is making yourself want to write. If being a successful writer is your dream, you can’t just wait for the right time. You have to make it happen.

The value of repeating a joke

Clown

Humour is constantly evolving and some jokes wear thin

When we were read stories as children, which many of us can recall, a large part of the enjoyment was knowing what was coming and being able to join in.

“Fee, fi, fo, fum,

I smell the blood of an Englishman,”

or “Trip, trap, trip, trap,” of the Billy Goat Gruff going over the troll’s bridge.

As more sophisticated adults looking for realism in our reading, this appreciation of repetition, or of fulfillment of expectation, has largely migrated to our sense of humour.

Sideshow Bob of ‘The Simpsons’ can step on the tines of a rake and bang his head with the handle multiple times, and it’s still funny.

Comic characters rely on repeat phrases and stances, even if it’s just the calling out of a name. Again in ‘The Simpsons’, there’s the school inspector’s inflexion as he yells: “SKIN-NER!!”; we instantly look forward to seeing the Principal in trouble.

These catchphrases are a form of branding. The audience lifts them out and uses them, and their enjoyment of the original is intensified.

The same thing works in written fiction. ‘Shiver my timbers’ is uttered 7 times by the ‘Treasure Island’ pirate Long John Silver and is then adopted by Nancy Blackett, the Amazon Pirate of the children’s classic series ‘Swallows and Amazons’. It’s the pirate’s comical exclamation ‘par excellence’.

Two articles in the BBC News, one from yesterday and one from today, list a total of 30 euphemisms, some of which have become widespread due to their application in a political context and others of which have their origins in private family use. They’re invariably funny; that’s what makes them memorable and what made them catch on, and it’s through repetition that they come into their own. I particularly like ‘Paddling up the Mohawk River’ – look it up!

What better way to highlight a fictional world than by creating original and humorous phrases, and repeating them to the point that they stick!

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