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Tick Tock: Tracking Time in Novels

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Timelines are tricky beasts. They are one of my personal downfalls as a writer when working on a story that spans longer than a year. Weaving in backstory can make tracking time-sensitive plot points even harder. So, what do we do? We get organized! Here are some tips for keeping tabs on time.

Choose the Details

How important is time to the story? Does the book span a day? A week? A lifetime? The longer the time frame the more difficult it can be to make sure plot points don’t overlap, but shorter time frames have their difficulties too. For example, if a major plot point is that a character breaks a femur, that character can’t be expected to be back in action after a few days rest. Likewise, the amount of characters in the book can effect the way the plot unfolds. If the reader has to follow several main characters with intersecting stories, it’s crucial the timelines match up. So it’s important to consider the details and to decide how relevant specific dates and times are to less impactful plot points or characters.

Include Headers

My bad habit for getting around timing issues  is to simply not give enough information to the reader, letting the story float somewhere in the unknown reaches of the eternal. Not a suggested solution. An easy way to guide yourself as you go is to include headers at the start of or throughout chapters as time and location shift. Of course, it can’t stop there. You will still need to keep track of what happens when and will need to refer back to previous headers in order to make sure things are always in order. Which means that even with headers, it’s usually best to…

Make A Timeline

There are plenty of online tools you can google to help you along the timeline making process. Templates and programs are out there. However, some people prefer to make their own through Microsoft Word or other programs already on their computer. Other people are more hands-on organizers, meaning they prefer to have a physical paper in front of them (shoutout to my fellow traditional paperback book lovers out there). It can be a bit more tedious to make a timeline by hand, and mistakes are bound to happen, so I recommend writing in pencil. But, having a physical timeline is a handy tool to have if, like me, you’re the type that prefers to see the whole picture rather than bits and pieces as you scroll through your laptop. Either way, take the details you’ve decided are important and map them out on the timeline–character, plot point, day, year, time of day, etc.–and you’ve got yourself a workable way of tracking what happens when.

Happy Writing!

 

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Act Natural

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Finding a voice as a writer can be tough. You want to be clear, original, insightful, hysterical, dramatic! But the simultaneous pursuit of all these things will come off as novice, a try-hard, or just plain boring. That doesn’t mean you are those things, it just means it’s time to rethink how you’re approaching writing. Nobody is confined to a one-shot style box, but it helps to find the base of your voice before branching out.

Read

It seems obvious because it is. Reading helped me a tooooon as I started to get more serious about writing. Read. Re-read favorite authors then find some who are completely different and read them too. The more voices you meet, the better idea you’ll have of where you fit into the grand scheme of writing styles. While I was still getting my footing, I found myself slipping into style patterns of the authors I read the most. You never want to mimic someone else completely, but borrowing some insight by finding words that feel right to you, that communicate exactly what you’re trying to express on paper, is a great way to start figuring out what kind of words are most natural to you.

Experiment

It’s hard to grow into a voice if you’re limiting yourself to what you already know. So experiment! If you’re more of a prose writer, try to improve your poetry writing, and vice versa. Genres are not mutually exclusive. A lot of my favorite novels are written by authors who “write like poets.” Their sentences flow seamlessly into each other, use a lot of descriptive language, and make me feel like I’m reading in a pool of moonlight. I do not write this way. My default is a short and choppy structure, or complex sentences strung together with commas and semicolons. So for me, style involves experimenting with tone, but also with how I structure sentences to create those tones. Depending on what I’m writing–a poem, a prose piece, a blog post–I have to change the way I’m presenting my voice to best communicate what I want to say.

Be Yourself

But that doesn’t mean overhauling my entire persona. On a base level, I still write a little sassy, a little sweet, and fairly straight forward. I write like me. Even when taking on the voice a character in the first person, I maintain those underlying notes that make my writing identifiable through word choice, sentence structure, and tone. So if you aren’t sure where to start, there’s a simple answer: Start with you! Just get something down. Write about an opinion, write a conversation you wish you could have with someone, write a first draft that makes you cringe. The more you write the closer you will come to identifying your own voice. Find that, and you’re on your way.

Happy Writing!

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Everything is Fine…and Why It Shouldn’t Be

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A common response to when someone makes a mistake is, “Nobody’s perfect!” Which is true. We live in an imperfect world which is why so many of us turn to the nearest escape hatch–books.

Who We Are

We read to go seeking a world that’s a little more magical, that feels a bit more like “the good old days” or a utopian future. But “the good old days” had problems too, and utopia is unlikely. (I know, it hurts my sunshine idealist heart too.) Imperfection is who we are…and it’s who our characters should be too.

What characters are you most drawn to reading? It’s pretty safe to bet it isn’t the cardboard ones that are perfect people that just have bad things happen to them. What we see in fiction are reflections of our world, and that hope for utopia comes from a hope of growth. Much like the plants in my brother’s tiny apartment, if your characters are rooted in a stagnant box then they have nowhere to grow.

What Perfection Does

In case you haven’t seen How I Met Your Mother, which you should, meet Patrice.

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She is a happy-go-lucky office worker who has never done a thing wrong in her life (we know this, and we love you). Patrice is peppy, thoughtful, and genuinely wants nothing but to love everyone around her any way that she can, to which the general response is:

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Because while we adore these kinds of people in real life, even they are not as perfect as Patrice, and if they were, we would be just as annoyed as Robin Scherbatsky. Imperfection is what makes characters relatable, and makes us root for them. It’s why the protagonists of HIMYM are the heavily flawed band of Robin and friends and not Patrice.

How to Handle Flaws 

Make them real. Make them hurt. Make them redeemable. Clumsiness is not a character flaw. I repeat, NOT A CHARACTER FLAW. It’s relatable, but it’s not internal. The flaws I’m talking about come from our fears, our desires, and how we enact them. A glory-seeking hero underestimates the villain and consequently someone dies. The bookish girl wants the world to operate by her moral compass, which it doesn’t, prodding her to have a hellish temper. Two best friends share a pride streak, so neither one knows that the other is in danger because they both refuse to apologize first. These are the kinds of real flaws that readers can relate too, even when inflated by fiction. While flaws may show themselves in external action, it starts at the heart of the character.

Happy Writing!

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Don’t Tell Mom: On Writing Siblings

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Having recently read S.E. Hinton’s classic novel The Outsiders, I decided to dedicate a post to writing about sibling love. The sibling bond is something strange, and I’m not sure there’s any other relationship like it. (Shout-out to my brother for permitting me use the banner images. Just so you know, bro, I probably would have done it anyway. Love you!)

Sometimes We Get Along…

There are many stories that feature siblings as a joint force to be reckoned with. We see it in classics like the Curtis brothers in The Outsiders or the March sisters in Little Women, but also in more recent pop culture such as The Avenger’s: Age of Ultron superhuman duo, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, or the Elric brothers of Full Metal Alchemist. 

The key to these relationships is they aren’t perfect. Even in their most loving moments, siblings may be looking for ways to make their family the butt of a joke. In other words, don’t over-romanticize the closeness of siblings, not even the ones who generally get along. I’d recommend avoiding grandiose speeches of brotherly love sometimes found in emotional or climatic moments of stories unless you’ve built a relationship with your readers so that they expect and respect dramatic effect. If not, keep it short, to the point, and in character. That is where the more powerful impact of sibling love lies–in subtle and sometimes imperfect gestures of support.

…Sometimes We Don’t

Of course, rivalry and personal differences can sometimes break the family bond and leave an emotional fissure. As readers, we often hope or expect these wounds will be mended, but we don’t always get our happy resolution. Siblings know each other’s weaknesses, even if they’re as small as pet peeves. Ill-willed siblings will often use these to their advantage. Hateful siblings definitely will. When reading about a protagonist and antagonist that are siblings, I usually find the villainous activity turned up to eleven. I live for that fictional drama. But again, don’t undersell the importance of the subtler emotional jabs that only someone with the insider knowledge of a brother or sister possesses.

I’d also like to mention that not all siblings fall in the “I love you” or “I hate you” camps. Sometimes siblings simply co-exist in independent neutrality. No two sibling relationships are alike, but I hope these tips will help to get you thinking.

Storytime!

For those of you wondering why my brother and I look like prom dates in the lefthand banner photo, it’s because we kind of were. My junior year of high school we became friends with another brother-sister set, and our moms thought it’d be fun for us to all go to prom together. Thus I came to understand the age old sentiment that no one knows awkward family situations like siblings.

Happy writing!

Question of the week: Who are your favorite fictional siblings?

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Child Care-acters (It’s a Pun!)

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Kids are funnier, more creative, and more astute than they are sometimes given credit for. As an adult it can be hard to remember how to think like a kid, making it harder to get inside the mind of a child character. So how do we improve the way we represent children in fiction?

Spend Time with Them

The best way to get to know someone is to spend time with them, right? Even if you’re not “a kid person”, spending some time with them can do wonders for getting those writer wheels turning. Take notes on the conversations you have. Who are more creative and honest than people too young for a verbal filter? I’ve heard some of the funniest, saddest, and purest one-liners while babysitting, and have been able to spin them into great dialogue, in some cases dialogue that isn’t even between children. Those little buggers can be wise.

Know the Vernacular 

With child characters, this means being able to distinguish the dialogue of a five year old from a ten year old, etc. I have read stories that underestimate the difference in children’s vernacular as they develop, and the result is unrealistic dialogue or inconsistent/flat characters. Again, exposure can be a huge help. And while we often want to believe in the innocence of children’s language, the truth is that by upper elementary a kid probably has a more colorful vocabulary than some parents might want or expect. In writing this is often used for humor, but if it fits someone’s environment or personality it can also be reflective of realistic characterization (think Stranger Things or the “Bleep” episode of the TV show Arthur).

Recognize Their Impact

Child characters are often used to empathetic ends. We see this when they are used as foils for jaded or angry adults. Their innocence and black-and-white view can diffuse tense situations, likes Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, or increase tension by obliviously wandering in on an already taut scene. However, child characters can also reveal the darker parts of human nature, like in Lord of the Flies. Either way, they can provide a lot of insight into what it means to be human. But they should also be understood as more than just a literary symbol. They need to be well-rounded characters and relevant to the story. I think Laura from the movie Logan is a great (if slightly intense) example. If kids shouldn’t be talked down to then as characters they shouldn’t be “written” down to either. Let’s give credit where credit it due.

Happy Writing!

Question of the week: What was your favorite children’s book/series growing up?

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A Little Encouragement

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Happy Friday, friends! The weekend is here and with it, here’s a little extra encouragement as you work on that best-seller. Nothing is quite as demotivating as pitching an idea to someone who replies, “Hey that’s cool! Your story sounds kind of like…reminds me of….etc.” Sometimes it can feel like everything’s already been said, that your story isn’t worth putting out there, but fight that little brain demon and keep at it!

Want to know a secret? Some of the most mind-blowing characters we see and think, “Wow, I could never create someone as devastatingly amazing at that,” aren’t quite as stand-alone as we think. For example, Batman was not the world’s first mysterious and shadowy crime detective to make a hobby of stalking police commissioners. Much of his character draws from the 1930’s radio drama, The Shadow. (Which is actually super fun to listen to if you like podcast-type stories. You can find episodes free online.) So yes, sometimes we do need to stand on the shoulders of the storyteller who have come before us. But by incorporating our own voices we are owning our traditions and remaking the myths that have been the foundation of narrative for centuries. You’ve got this!

Happy Writing!

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A Guide to Preserving Literary Parents

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(Photo taken from Flickr)

When it comes to protagonists, we all know the drill–child loses parents at a tender age, discovers the world is not as friendly as it seems, and eventually becomes her own hero, cobbling together a family-of-circumstance along the way. Don’t get me wrong, I love these types of stories. They’re often my favorite. But, my fellow writers, where does it end? Will no one save the parents?

Parents as Motivators 

The most basic role of parent figures in fiction is probably that of the motivator. Often in YA it’s their death that leads to the main character’s emotional struggle. (For example, in classic Disney films parents have what I  would guess to be a 3% chance of surviving past the first twenty minutes.) But it doesn’t have to be this way! Living parents can be just as effective at motivating protagonists. Reuniting with estranged family can serve as a strong motivation or end goal. In my novel, Marley is offered the chance to find her parents as extra incentive to comply with the antagonist’s scheme. On the other hand, parents can also serve the “prove you wrong” purpose, leading the underestimated heroes to take up a cause to prove their worth.

Parents as Protagonists

Sometimes young writers such as myself forget that a parent can function as a stand alone character, or even the hero. In this capacity, they are the ultimate protectors. Case in point, the movie Taken. At the same time, parental characters don’t have to be confined by their guardian role. They can go on their own adventures, fight their own personal battles, and be their own comic relief. Two words. Dad jokes.

Parents as Antagonists

Ah, villains. How we love thee. Although a bit cliché, parental antagonists are fantastic, creating joyous inner conflicts that have given us gems like:

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Sorry, Darth. Not today. Of course, there are times when children fall in line with the evil whims of their parents as well, such as the case of Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series. The turmoil between the will of a parent and a desperate to please hero is absolute gold. Not only does it increase tension, but it ups the stakes of the protagonist’s success. Basically, fictional parents rock, so let’s think twice before casting them out to sea.

Happy Writing!

Question of the week: Who are you favorite fictional parents?

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When to Write a Series

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Writing a novel is similar to knitting a scarf. It can be stunning, colorful and intricately designed, but no matter how brilliant, if it’s too long the loops can bury the person on the receiving end. If they’re too busy trying not suffocate in all the details to notice them, then what’s the point? Enter, the series. Heroically breaking our favorite tales into bite-sized pieces since who knows when. I have an enormous amount of respect for good series writers. So why are series so great, and when might a novel become a series?

The Temptation of Familiar Characters

Series are fantastic for those of us who don’t want to say goodbye to characters after just one adventure. When we readers comes across developed, timeless characters, we weep at the thought of letting them go. The proof is in the fan fiction. Picking up the next book in a series has all the warmth and excitement of running into the arms of an old friend. It’s homey, thrilling, and downright addictive. Unfortunately, characters can dull over time if forced to return to old habits after they’ve outgrown them. Be wary of writing a series for the sake of keeping characters around, rather than for the purpose of developing them and those around them.

Complex Plots

Breaking down stories with complex and/or long-running plots are probably the simplest way for a novel to transform into a series. If important aspects of the main plot, or even subplots, become too lengthy, it can tire the reader. I’ve had this happen to me while reading on several occasions, even when I absolutely love the book. I want to keep reading, but begin to develop a feeling of obligation in place of enjoyment. Turning a novel into a series can give readers a chance to better digest multiple complicated events that are vital to the overall story. In other words, it offers a bit of respite so readers can recharge their bookish hunger.

Prequels & Sequels

God bless the brave writers who successfully tackle prequels. Among the many great things the Star Wars franchise has taught us, it’s that prequels are like quicksand (Anakin knows what I’m talking about, that angsty sand-hater). They have the ability to suck us in with promises of revelational backstories and beloved characters. When done well, prequels have the potential to be the crowning jewel of a series. When they’re not, they leave us with a mouthful of mud and regret. Sequels that lack depth of plot can have similar effects. While a squeal doesn’t have to be a continuation of the original plot, it shouldn’t ignore it either. (Scott Lynch, author of the Gentlemen Bastards series, is excellent at maintaining purpose while working with different plots.) When going the series route, write with intent, and attack that prequel and/or sequel with gusto!

Happy Writing!

Questions of the week: What book do you think deserved a series, but never got one?

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Part of That World

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Every book lover has had that “Little Mermaid” moment. That moment where we fall so deeply in love with a fictional world that we’d die happy if we could spend just ten minutes there. But what happens when we’re not just experiencing fictional worlds? What happens when we’re creating them? Creating a fictional world can be challenging, but not to fear fellow mermaids! Here are a few starting tips to leave readers wishing they were part of that world.

Defining Borders 

As discussed in an earlier post, setting is a powerful tool, so it’s important to use it to its full potential. When designing a fictional world, making borders is a great place to start.Building land-based borders can help define the edges of a character’s world. These edges can be limited to something as small as a single street, or as vast as a universe. There may be entire continents that make up your world, but the ones that really matter are the ones that effect characters.

There are other ways to define borders as well. Unless it’s a Doctor Who-ish world where anything can happen at any time, there are usually basic laws to how things work. Consider: What are the physical limitations of the story and characters? For example, in my novel some people like Rumpelstiltskin use magic, but they can’t go around doing whatever they want. There are lines that cannot be crossed, which adds drama by creating consequences for people who try to overstretch their limits.

Creating Cultures

Who lives in your world is a large part of its construction. What do these people value and how does it shape their world? Do they blow apart mountains to get to the other side because they value efficiency, or do they avoid the mountains because of folklore? Culture will determine how characters interact with their environment and each other. When considering creating fictional cultures, it can be difficult to find a place to start. Research can help. I often borrow aspects from already existing cultures and integrate pieces into my work to form something new.

Often culture sculpts character. Much of a character’s personality depends on the values she’s gained from her culture. In many cases, it is then her backstory, the specific events throughout her life, that decides whether a she accepts or rejects those cultural values as her own. Culture can then be used as a form of support or conflict for a character.

Happy Writing!

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Namely, This

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Congratulations! You have created a masterful, swoon-worthy, fully embodied character who is ready to take on whatever fresh hell you can throw at them (because let’s be honest, driving a character up a tree and seeing how they’ll get themselves down is more fun than it probably should be). But wait! This magnificent hero is, alas, nameless, and it’s hard to sing heroic ballads when you don’t have something to call them.

Sweetest Name I Ever Heard

When considering names, the two most important characters are, naturally, the protagonist and antagonist. If working with a large cast though, it’s also worth thinking big picture. How does a collection of names sound and interact together on the page?

As a reader, I can get confused when too many characters have names that sound similar. This happens when the majority of names start with the same letter, have the same vowel pattern, or are too lengthy. If too many names are too long, it tires out my brain and I start filling in the names with white-noise. Not good, right?

I’m not saying we as writers should use every letter of the alphabet, or that we can’t use long names. But I find it helpful to think about the overall feel of the story when choosing names. It helps me to keep readers in mind as I sculpt the characters I want them to love.

Authenticity 

A characters name should reflect the culture of the world they live in. Lately, I’ve done quite a bit of research in the name of, well, names. This is so my characters more accurately reflect the time periods they live in. In terms of fantasy and sci-fi genres, this part can be a little trickier, but it comes down to a matter of authenticity.

Take the show Stranger Things. It takes place in a small town in the 1980s, and follows four middle school boys named Will, Mike, Dustin, & Luke. Fitting, right? It creates expectations for the boundaries of their world, the type of story being told. But then there’s Eleven. She completely shifts the tone of the story. Her name solidifies her as something “strange”, something out of place, and the audience holds onto that sense of uncertainty for the remainder of the story.

Essentially, character names can add to the tone of the work. They can also reinforce the culture and setting. It may seem a subtle detail, but it really can work wonders in terms of creating a more believable world in the context of fiction.

Does the Name Make the Character?

A character’s name rarely makes or breaks a story, unless it’s a piece that relies heavily on symbolism. (You want to talk symbolic names, read Catch-22. Also, it’s a fantastic book, so you should really just read it anyway.) Recently, I’ve been more mindful about what exactly I’m looking for when researching names. So far, it’s helped me get a much better grasp on not only the fictional culture I created, but on the nature of my characters themselves. The truth is, trying to name a character based on a cool, underlying meaning isn’t always necessary. Sometimes, Doug is just Doug.

As much as it broke my heart, I recently forced myself to change the names of some of my main characters. It’s not that I didn’t like the names. I wanted a cohesive world for my characters to live in, and one way to do that is through names. While I’m not rolling out Marley and Holden‘s new digs just yet, I will say that changing their names has added an additional layer of believability to the world I built for them.

Happy Writing!

Question of the week: What are some of your favorite characters’ names?

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