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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Putting together a story

Although not everyone will agree with me here, the truth of the world is that there is not just one way to write a story, or in particular, a novel. In fact, there are no right or wrong ways to write one. There are, however, good and bad ways. And if you want to get published or are a beginning writer, there are some standards and practices that are generally adhered to.

One of these is described in a book, Scene and Structure: How to construct fiction with scene-by-scene flow, logic and readability by Jack Bickham. In my research, I have found this to be one of the most commonly used strategies for writing a novel, a tried and true method. If you follow this method, and are a decent writer, and can dedicate time to your craft, and are willing to rewrite many, many times, then you just might get published. Only after you have mastered your story telling should you deviate or alter this formula. And a formula it is.

The idea is that an entire book is broken down into 2 parts: scenes and sequels. Jack's naming convention is fairly poor. I am currently an engineering student (that's right, I'm going back for a second degree) who loves Physics. So allow me to.. improve upon these names. And this is my blog and my writing, so I'm allowed to mess with it as I please. No offense, Mr. Bickham.

Here is the forumla for writing a novel separated into more easily understood parts. A book has two things in it that follow each other: Action and Reaction. Why he named them so poorly, I will never know.

An Action is a scene in the book in which something happens to drive the plot. This usually involves physical action and/or dialogue. There are many good rules on how to make Action work. It is essentially a mini-story in and of itself, with a goal (plot), a protagonist (the character who has the goal), and an antagonist (the character who wants to stop the protagonist; this can even be another protagonist). I say "character" here because in stories, characters can show up in a variety of unusual skins, such as a phobia, or a runaway truck. You don't want to end this mini story happily, so you have to know what the consequences are for failing. Sometimes, however, you can indeed let the hero get his goal, only to find out it wasn't what he was expecting (What do you mean this isn't the Mona Lisa? And why is there a map drawn on the back?).

But the structure of Action aside, we then follow up with Reaction. This is, quite literally, the reaction to what just happened. This starts with emotional response(s), physical response(e), then leads into logical thought. Again, I will not get into the details. But this is generally how we humans act when we are put up against something unexpected. And, just like in the laws of physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. If your character just lost his jacket, make him react with an appropriate amount of emotion. If he lost his house or his wife, make sure the reaction fits. But this doesn't fit the size of the loss, it should fit the size of the loss for the character. If the Hulk loses his jacket, he might level New York. However, if a a serial killer just lost his job, house, and wife, he might not show hardly any emotion. To him, that isn't what is important. If you took away his bracelets of souvenirs, or let his kidnapped girl escape, then he might go on a killing spree. Keep the character in mind at all times.

Here, Bickham includes decision. I like to keep it a little separate so that it is easier to keep track of. Decision follows the logical thinking that just happened after the emotions subsided. "I lost my jacket, now what? I need that jacket or my wife will kill me. I suppose I could go buy a new one, or I could try to get my old one back..." Decision will lead inevitably to the next action, thus keeping the plot moving. Because what is integral to every action? It must move the plot towards the ultimate goal. And usually the next action is bigger than the last. Remember, however, that the decision may be a very easy one. "I have to go save Penny from the evil overlord or else.... she'll die!" Yeah, rest assured, Penny, for most characters there really isn't a choice here.

So this Action/Reaction or Scene/Sequel type of writing is pretty powerful stuff. I ran across it while reading the blog of a well-known author, and started to look into it a little deeper. I have not written a novel as of yet, but I am beginning one. And I think I will be trying this out from here on in. There's a lot more to it, so I recommend picking up the book or doing a google search for it, if you want to know. As for me, I will be keeping you all posted as to how this is helping my story progress.

And if you are enjoying my "How to be a thief" story, do not worry. I have not abandoned our friends. I have simply taken a break. You will see what happens next, trust me.

Friday, January 21, 2011


Ok, so they have announced that Bane and Catwoman are going to be in the next Batman movie. Now, I thought I was familiar with Bane, but I have to admit, I got most of my information from the animated series... which lies! Bane is actually extremely intelligent and is an anti-hero of sorts, only a villain in the beginning due to the effects of the drug called Venom that course through his veins. And after a while, he breaks the habit and helps clean up the streets of Gotham from a Venom-like drug.

All this research got me into some of the more recent goings-on in the DC Universe. As some of you may know, they have been revamping the DC Universe. They somewhat recently decided that there just weren't enough color rings, so they added a crap ton more. In general I think they did an alright job on them, though there are a few points about them I would dispute (each color ring corresponds to an emotion, and they have different effects on each other. The notable exceptions are Black and White - death and life). During this revamp, they used these "black rings" to bring back many old and obscure characters. And after reading through their descriptions, I realized 3 things about the writers of the DC Universe.

1) They have way too many characters and can't seem to let them GO.
2) The lesser-known (and some well-known) villains can get incredibly one-dimensional.
3) They are either extremely good at planning things ahead of time, or they are extremely good at making shit up on the spot.

In other words, the writers are doing an OK job. Not an excellent job, just OK. Then again, I'm not trying to keep an old, HUGE franchise alive while making tons of money. I understand that they need to connect with new audiences. But they seem to be doing it around a few basic concepts.
First, make the villains stronger and bigger and more powerful. The recent addition of Nekron as the most powerful being, trumping all the other "most powerful beings" is a bit... unimaginative. I like to call it the DragonBall Z effect. You can always SAY they're getting more powerful, but it means little and isn't really interesting.
Second, make the heroes stronger and bigger and more powerful, even if it means redefining old ones from the ground up. Nothing irks me MORE in a comic than when they find an old, forgotten character and make him suddenly IMPORTANT, as if, all along, he wasn't just a hero, but also the ESSENCE OF JUSTICE ITSELF. Now, I know they're also trying to keep interest in the older characters, but really? Just let them fade away!
Third, "killing" off major characters. Let's see, which characters have been "killed?" Superman - the anchor of DC comics... Batman - the other anchor of DC comics... Hal Jordan - one of the most popular characters... I could go on, but need I? Of course they will never truly kill off Batman (Bruce Wayne), Superman, or any of the other important characters. They are the bread and butter of DC. Perhaps they should stop with the one-trick pony.

It seems to me that the best use of old characters is in non-recurring, stand alone adventures/stories. What do I mean? Look at Sandman. He brought back tons of obscure and popular characters as they fit into his story, but did not make them overpowered or send them on rampages or even redefine them. And at the end of issue 75, Sandman ended, and the story was complete.

In fact, these stand alone comics which have little bearing on the on-going story of DC are much better. They allow for more imagination, better writing, and less of the preteen mentality. You cannot tell me that Sandman was written for a 10-year-old audience, but that doesn't mean 10-year-olders didn't read it.

Now, perhaps they feel that they must always make things more powerful. A sort of escalation in the comic world. I do not agree that this is the best choice for them, but do not think for a moment that I could not follow in their power-mongering footsteps. They can be power-hungry and STILL have good writing. I have had an idea for a... character (not necessarily a villain...) that could put their power mongering to shame, and he wouldn't even be God. When you get to these nigh-omnipotent ranges, you need to bring forth other limitations and motives in order to keep things... interesting, not just even more powerful forces and characters to deal with them. For instance, I could create a character that is literally immune to every power and effect in the DC Universe. Suddenly, he is uninteresting. No one would be able to "defeat" him if they wanted to. So... what would his origin be? If he is immune to the powers in the universe, in my mind that means he is either not from the universe or is the "embodiment" of it. They've done too much of this crap, so let's delve a little deeper. The character would actually be the essence of reality, and, as all things in this universe seem to have some form of an avatar, so would reality itself. That makes some sense, at least as much sense as any other origin story (and at least he wasn't Joe Everybody gone insane... why does insanity bring forth superhuman abilities?). As he is the essence of another multiverse's reality, everywhere he goes leaves a tear in their reality. Things would spill forth from this tear, and these things would be what the characters of DC would have to deal with. As we are talking a different reality, we're also talking things that are completely unique, with unique challenges and not just massive power. Eventually, someone (*cough*batman*cough*) would figure out what is going on. What would have brought this being to the DC multiverse? What would his goal be? Since you can't use powers or force to stop it, perhaps there is another way, a more subtle way. Would you want to stop it? Who would want to help it? What ARE its weaknesses? In my mind, this has immense potential for a host of new heroes, villains, conflicts, etc. And since it is one of the incredibly few absolutes in DC, to deal with it would require superior and less power hungry writing. You know, DC, you don't have to cater to the 12-year-old all the time. Why not give a treat for your fans who have grown up already?

Another thought was a character who simply is the writer. But he isn't the best writer. So he is trying to cover up his own plot holes. Granted, this would bring a little bit of comedy to the scene, but if done correctly, could be incredibly fun.

Now perhaps I am wrong. I am not intimately familiar with DC. Maybe they have already dealt with a being like this. Or perhaps the writing is improving. Or perhaps they really have killed off a main character who they have not and will not EVER bring back. Perhaps it is not really a soap opera with superpowers. If so, I apologize. I will be the first to admit I was wrong and this entire argument is fallacious. But if I am wrong, it would be a pleasant surprise.

So, world, what is your take? Do you think DC is getting too power-hungry? Catering to the wrong audience? IS the writing repetitive and poor? Have they dug themselves into a ditch and are frantically trying to get out of it? Do you also agree that they should just go ahead and make "Plot-Hole Man" who magically fixes all the errors, ambiguities, paradoxes, and redefinitions?

Monday, January 3, 2011

A rose by any other nomenclature...

How to name a character

What is in a name? How often do people truly think about the names of their most beloved characters? Is there anymore thought put into a character's name than just randomly selecting one in a baby name book? How do you name your characters?

The truth is, names can be very important. In writing, the names of the main and supporting characters are going to be repeated time and time again, and the characters are the primary vessel we use to guide our readers through the world and story we have crafted. So, you better believe that there is something in a name.

This post is going to dissect some of the usage of names in modern writing. However, there is more in naming than is dreamt of in my philosophy, so this is by no means a comprehensive study.

Let me begin by stating that I do not believe in "nameology" or "numerology" or any of their ilk, and neither do most writers. Nameology is the belief that your name actually MEANS something, can predict your future and lead to your happiness. It is also the belief that if you convince enough people that the garbage you are spewing is real, they will buy your book about it and you won't have to get a real job. If you believe in nameology, I do not intend to insult you... only your crack-pot belief. That being said, in writing, nameology is not as useless as it is in reality.

Many stories do indeed have characters whose names mean little or have only personal significance to the writer. While J. K. Rowling was coming up with the name for her main character, she chose Harry because it had always been her favorite boy's name. She even said that if she had a son, he would have been named Harry. Potter was the last name of a family that lived nearby while she was a child, and she always liked their name as well. But you can rest assured that there is more to the name than this, whether or not Ms. Rowling was completely aware of it. Imagine settling down to immerse yourself in a complicated world of fantasy with a boy from a background similar to yours. However, instead of naming this boy something simple and down-to-earth like Harry, the main character was named Reginald, Yehochannan, Yancy, or Aonghus. Unless this is your actual name, you would likely be turned off. Reginald has the connotation of being rich and snooty - not something people empathize with. Yehochannan, though a real name and not too hard to pronounce, is obscure, jarring, and takes up a great deal of room on the page. Yancy is a rare name that most young boys would see as "Nancy" and make fun of. Aonghus, along with many great Celtic/Irish names, is difficult to read and looks impossible to pronounce. Some names evoke strong emotions, so strong that they almost fall out of actual usage. If Rowling had named the main character Adolf, she would likely not be the richest author alive.

Some authors put a little more thought into their names. In Lord of the Flies, all the boys have simple, British names, and all of them are easy to remember and distinguish from one another. Piggy, one of the main characters, is obviously named after his looks, though one can rest assured that Golding knew pigs are very intelligent creatures. Ralph is Norse for Wolf Counsel. Like a wolf, he struggles with his nature. He shows alpha wolf traits by being elected leader and keeping the pack (of boys) together, for a time. Roger lives up to his name ("famous spearthrower") by becoming the executioner and torturer of the tribe. Finally, Jack's name has the connotation of being clever; a traditional character in many Germanic and English stories is the wily Jack, who appears in stories like Jack and the Beanstalk and has taken on the roles of Jack Frost and Jack in the Green (among hundreds of others). The name itself is based on John, which means God's Grace, or Jacob, which means "he who supplants." Considering what Jack Merridew does in the story, which meaning do you think Golding had in mind?

Next, there are the authors who pour over the names of their characters, and, I have to admit, I am one of them. Generally they fall into 3 categories: 1) names with connotations, 2) names with root meanings, and 3) new names. I will go through them individually.

Names with strong connotations, like Adolf, come with images built-in to the minds of the readers. Despite the personality of the character, the meaning of the name, or the time period of the story, using these names will draw parallels to their namesakes. A woman named Eve will evoke sensual, primal feelings, can involve innocence or innocence lost, and usually has something to do with beginnings. In Roman times, Lucifer was the name of the planet Venus, known as the Morning Star. The name itself means "light bearer." In Judeo-Christian tradition, Lucifer was the highest of all angels and closest to God, yet rebelled against God. Only in relatively recent years has this character and name been associated with the Prince of Hell, Beelzebub (who is actually a Philistine god related to Baal and seen as a separate demon by Christianity Proper), Satan (who, again, was originally an angel to accuses), or the Devil. Nowadays, you cannot get away with naming your child Lucifer, despite its benign origin. In fact, in 2009, a man lost custody of his 3 children after naming them Adolf Hitler Campbell, JoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell, and Honszlynn Hinler Jeannie Campbell.

Many names, however, have less powerful connotations that can still bring great meaning and life to our characters. Jack is one of these names. They can have societal connotations or be used as inside jokes and references. If the name of one of your favorite people (real or not) isn't too outlandish, it can be a great way to pay homage to someone. One of the main characters (an alien) in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is Ford Prefect. Why would Douglas Adams name someone after a well-known British automobile? He explained that Ford had taken the name to blend in, having mistaken what the dominant life-form on Earth was. He had created a tongue-in-cheek satire on the prevalence of cars in human society simply by giving his character a funny name. Similarly, Rowling names one of her characters Luna Lovegood. Luna is the proper name of the Moon, and this brings a host of meanings and images that can help describe her, from lunacy to paleness.

Another way to name your characters is by looking at the meanings of the names. I personally enjoy using names with Latin and Greek roots. About 90% of the words we use can eventually be traced back to their Latin or Greek origins, though they may have to make a few stops on the way. By doing this, we can discover new meanings and origins of the words we use. I like to think of it as discovering the philosophy of our language. For instance, the root word of "ludicrous", ludus, originally meant play, sport, or training, and was used to describe elementary schools. The same is true for names. This can be as simple as looking at a baby name books or naming sourcebooks, most of which include the various meanings and origins of the names. For instance, Sophia means "wisdom," and Matthew means "gift of God." And there are many other languages to chose from! If you want to be able to look up names from all over the world, by meaning or name, I recommend using Behind The Name.

If you want to be able to create your own names, there are several ways to do it and still make it sound good. In some situations, simply stringing words that describe some aspect of your character (or poke fun at the character) can work well. Some examples of this are Neville Longbottom, Ford Prefect, or any of the 7 dwarfs. Speaking of dwarfs, in fantasy worlds, they usually have descriptive, simplistic, and often slightly funny names.
However, you may want to delve deeper into the world of naming than simply using words. Here is where learning other languages, or at least faking it, can come in handy.

The reason I enjoy using Greek and Latin so much is that I learned them in high school, so I tend to refer to latin and greek roots for words. When building the name of a character, I sometimes look for the greek word I wish to use to describe some aspect of the character and mutate it into a workable name. For instance, in one story of mine, a character has been gifted (cursed?) with seeing the truth. I chose to use the greek word "martureo" for his name, which means "to bear witness." After some fiddling, I came up with Marturin, an unusual, simple surname that might stick in the mind of the reader and still has some meaning (you may recognize the English word that stemmed from it, "martyr"). Many of the names (and word and phrases) used by Shakespeare (such as Desdemona) did not exist before he used them, and most of them have some vague root in Latin or Greek.

The last and most complicated way to come up with names for your characters is to develop the language or alphabet from which they are derived. J.R.R. Tolkien is famous for the depth and number of the languages he created, from which he derived most, if not all, of the names in Middle Earth. However, Tolkien was not only a celebrated writer, but an accomplished linguist (philologist) and skilled teacher. Creating your own language is not impossible, but it does take years of study and a passion for developing it. After all, most people have not mastered their native tongue. There are ways to cheat, but do not expect people to start teaching it to their kids.

If this is all too much, or you feel too limited by these guidelines, remember that there is no wrong way to come up with the names of your characters. It could be simply an artistic expression, an anagram, or a sound you fell in love with years ago. But do keep in mind a few basic rules.
1) Know your audience.
2) Make sure the names of your characters are not too similar to each other - or too foreign to the readers.
3) Be consistent
4) Keep the names relatively simple and pronounceable
5) Don't brag about your naming skills, particularly in your story

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A New Year - A New Resolution

Every year I make the same resolution, just like most Americans. And like most of us, I always fail to see it through to its completion. My usual resolution is to get published - a simple enough idea, though, as any writer will tell you, a daunting one. However, this failure can be very depressing year after year. So this year, I will do something different.

For starters, I am developing specific steps and deadlines with which to achieve my goals. The only way to actually reach them is to plan and carry out the plan.

Secondly, this year, 2011, is going to be different than any other in my life for a variety of reasons. And it will also be the busiest year of my life, I am sure. In March, I will become a father, and having a newborn is going to take most of my time and attention. Likewise, I have recently been accepted to Clemson University to pursue a degree in Mechanical Engineering, which will take up even more of my time and attention. If I have any left, it will be absorbed by the part-time job that I must find in order to survive on our meager earnings.

Because of this, I cannot make any grandiose resolution such as "getting published." It is not a feasible or even realistic goal in a year such as this one. Instead, I will make it my goal to write every day, if possible. It may only be five minutes, and it may only be in this very blog, but it must become a daily thing for me. If the Lord allows, I may find an agent this year as well, but I am not holding my breath.

As I started thinking about the new responsibilities that are soon to grace my plate, I began to realize how complex a person I really am. I was once told that a man only has time for one great passion in his life. Only now am I realize that this statement, although depressing, has plenty of truth to it. Along with raising a child, keeping the flame of love alive, chasing a degree, and working to keep bread on the table, I MUST find time for my own passions, or else I fear I may go insane. My greatest passions are writing and playing the guitar. I can do either for endless hours, and I am decent at both (although, after reading The Great Gatsby, I realize that I am excellent at neither). But everything has its parameters, its defining limitations, and time is almost always one of them. This year, if I am to write every day, my guitar may be collecting a fine layer of dust from time to time. But it has become a part of me, and I cannot simply give it up. Time management is going to be a skill that I will have to learn this year, along with self-discipline.